Minnesota Local History

Minnesota Local History Blog.

Minnesota Local History Blog.

Advice and help with building history capacity.

The Minnesota Historical Society’s Local History Services helps Minnesotans preserve and share their history. This blog is a resource of best practices on the wide variety of museum, preservation, conservation, funding, and non-profit management topics. We’re here to help.

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MHCG: Writing Successful Grant Projects - (audio only)

By: grabitsdm | April 12, 2011
This is an audio version of the Writing Successful Grant Projects presentation.

Writing grants is not rocket science, but it does take some understanding, thought, and planning to do well. David Grabitske from the Minnesota Historical Society provides general advice on writing grants and creating projects, drawn from his seven years of service in the Society’s Grants Office.

MHCG: Writing Successful Grant Projects

By: grabitsdm | April 12, 2011
Writing grants is not rocket science, but it does take some understanding, thought, and planning to do well. David Grabitske from the Minnesota Historical Society provides general advice on writing grants and creating projects, drawn from his seven years of service in the Society’s Grants Office.

Presentation Slides (PDF)

Funding Matrix (PDF)

Budget Samples (PDF)

[powerpress image="/sites/default/files/mnlocalhistory/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/mhcg-clicktoplay_grants.png"]

Measurements of Tomorrow

By: grabitsdm | April 7, 2011
To succeed in both the near term and for the long run, local historical organizations may need to adapt, if they have not already done so. Drawing on experience with Minnesota’s local history organizations, it seems as though there are three primary initiatives that should yield success.

Many historical organizations rightfully consider themselves as value added amenities that supplement the quality of society. However, like the value the popcorn adds to a night out at the movies, at times people may opt to do without local history and may label it superfluous.

Local history advocates may stake a claim that local history is an essential part of society, but without clear need and rationale these kinds of statements are rather hollow because they are usually not substantiated. Merely asserting that something is true does not make it true.

The three are, in a “tied-for-first” alphabetical order: Integration, Public Good, and Responsiveness.


Elders often tell the youth to make themselves indispensable when taking a first job. Local history has to do the same by integrating more closely with our communities.

Integration means that the local historical organization must enhance and support the quality of life in a measurable way. That may mean following the example of the Carver County Historical Society that plays an integral role in Carver County’s required comprehensive plan. A similar example is that of the Finland Minnesota Historical Society’s role in the Crystal Bay Township comprehensive plan.

Beyond the obvious ways that local historical organizations might integrate with local government, local history also has the opportunity to integrate with major local projects. Many local historical organizations have actively assisted in public infrastructure projects. Far fewer have been integral to fostering for-profit ventures, such as the Carlton County Historical Society’s efforts to support the Lindholm Service Station, the only gas station designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

In the mind of the public, local historical organizations have an almost magical status in the community. At times local history can appear part of government, and at others quite independent. Depending on circumstances there are advantages to either end of those positions that inspires confidence in the public that local history can, indeed, “do something.”

Integration takes a lot of work to develop nuanced relationships whereby local history can become part of the societal machine. Again, however, just asserting that local history should be part of an overall public strategy is insufficient. As a group local history needs to take a careful look at efficiencies and outcomes achieved when local history is integrated with public policy makers and for-profit ventures.

Public Good

Public Good is an economic term that means that whatever it is, a public good is both nonrival and non-excludable. ‘Nonrival’ means that just because one person enjoys it, the resource is not diminished for others to use. ‘Non-excludable’ means that no one can be effectively kept from using it. Local historical organizations must be for the public good.

What local historical organizations do better than any other entity is improve cultural legibility. Cultural legibility is a public good because when one person can read the built environment, cultural landscape, and other overlays, no one is harmed by that ability. And, since the clues are all present around us, local historical organizations really can’t exclude anyone from learning about them. Using the clues in aggregate as they often exist in our collections can broaden the ability to be able to read our surroundings. That can be measured.

Local historical organizations might use their ability to broaden public good, and thereby further integrate with their community. For example, in some portions of Minnesota depopulation is taking a toll on communities. By increasing community legibility in the youth that live in these rural areas, local historical organizations might be able to contribute to stemming the ‘brain-drain’ by showing the youth the quality of their own community and how to make a good life there. Although it will take years to measure retention, after a couple decades local history organizations might be able to show how they have slowed or maybe even reversed out-migration.

Another skill that local historical organizations can do very well is to provide a neutral place of healing for the public good. The Anoka County Historical Society did that with their exhibit a few years ago, “Vietnam: The Veterans' Experience.” Not only did the exhibit have boxes of facial tissue and a notebook in which to write memories available, but ACHS also partnered with the Veteran’s Administration. The VA was able to provide a hotline, training for staff and volunteers, and counselors that would be present at major events (opening, closing, etc.) The outcome? Veterans who were entitled to services received the services they were due.


In order to integrate and be a force for public good, local historical organizations need to be responsive to ever-changing conditions. Local history in Minnesota was built for that because local history organizations are supposed to pay attention to current events so that each might be recorded as it happens.

Responsiveness means that exhibits, programs, and publications should not shy away from current events. Flooding seems like it is a near-constant rite of spring, why not prepare items for consumption that relate to what is happening right now? Or, as in the case of the Wadena County Historical Society, after the June 17 direct hit tornado last year, WCHS undertook an oral history project with Wadena residents. The oral history not only captured history that future researchers will need and public policymakers will use, but by offering this service WCHS fostered a public good by becoming a place of public healing.

Helping people heal can be measured and tracked. Using those kinds of numbers will establish the compelling reasons that supporting local history will make sense to the broadest number of people.

Finally, responsiveness means paying attention to public capacity to support our missions. Even if local history does all as stated above, money and space that money might buy are finite resources.

A number of years ago local history services staff helped plan a new storage building for one organization. That building was designed to meet the needs of the organization for another ten years. Approximately six months after opening, the president of that organization beamed with pride and said, “You know how we thought it would take ten years to fill that building? We did it in just three months!”

History is a winnowing process – not everything that is old must or even should be saved. Those things that possess historic significance and integrity must meet a high threshold for that rare honor of being preserved in perpetuity. To be successful in the future, local history organizations need to reduce the pace of space consumption.

The pace of space consumption can and should be tracked nationally so that local organizations can use those statistics as a measuring stick. We must be careful not to use that to prompt a race for the fewest accessions in a year, but rather to determine what an appropriate pace might be. Hopefully over the course of time the annual fluctuation in accessions will relate closely to the benchmark.

What will make local history worthy of support is when it can prove how integral to the community local history can be, demonstrate the force for public good local history really is, and measure the stewardship of the community and its finite resources. If local history continues to rely only on altruistic assertions, it will continue to experience the adverse conditions and frustrations often voiced. Being able to do one or more of the above won't make life a bed of roses for local history organizations, but it should lessen frustrations by a significant degree.

For more on measuring what we do, see Data for Dollars, Alignment for Dollars, and Hanging Chads of Performance Measurement.

Relevant Warehouses

By: grabitsdm | March 23, 2011
Phillip Torrone offers some insight into what he believes the future of public libraries may be. He begins with an overview of the current state of affairs that is drawn from published sources, and this is quite useful. He then points out other lending options that have existed since the 1970s and may be growing. His assessment after all is written for the e-zine "Make."

His blog post calls to mind the admonition that so go public libraries, so also go museums. Historical organizations most often operate research libraries, which have some similarities to public libraries, but important differences.

There are some important differences, too, in the data. Whereas he estimates 9,000 public libraries in the United States, the American Association of Museums estimates approximately 17,000 museums. Whereas public libraries circulate most of their warehoused collection, museums generally do not circulate their collections - library, archives, or three-dimensional. Whereas public libraries generally facilitate access to a very broad spectrum of knowledge, historical research libraries are often highly focused.

However, with the advent of iPad, Xoom, Kindle, and other means of electronic reading, it is not hard to see public demand for access to historical collections through download. Digitization costs something, as does maintaining the digital files created. With historical research libraries often supported far more minimally than public libraries, how the cost of digitization might be absorbed is hard to imagine. It's probably unlikely that the going rate of 99 cents per downloaded book will cover costs.

What Torrone points out, however, is not only applicable to historical organizations operating museums and research libraries, but it is what successful organizations have long been doing. Namely, people want to be able to do something at the organization. This is why the Local History News e-newsletter has a permanent feature called "Do History Here," highlighting events at local historical organizations. People want to be participants - so what kinds of things will local historical organizations have to offer in the future?

The future is an undiscovered country. Certainly public libraries are forging a path into that wilderness ahead of historical organizations. That's fine, just so long as historical organizations pay attention to lessons learned.

So, do you think the warehouses of historical evidence will become obsolete? How might historical organizations ensure relevance of their collections?

NWA History Centre Tour

By: Joe Hoover | March 21, 2011

Being located next to a light rail station, close by the Mall of America would be a considered an enviable location for many organizations and businesses, however the NWA History Centre deals with the  challenge of being tucked away in the basement of a nondescript 1980's office building with little to no signage, which makes it a challenge to find.

Still, for airline and airplane buffs, as only one of three museums in the U.S. dedicated to a commercial airline and the only airline museum started and maintained by the airline's own employees, it is worth the time to seek out.  It is a great place to stop and spend some time for those on layover at the near by Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport.

NWA History Centre built most of it's collection through the donations of Northwest Airlines employees and a donated of material by Delta after the  NWA merger.

Learn more about the making of this video and the equipment used

NWA History Centre

8101 34th Avenue South

Suite B-747

Bloomington, MN 55425-1642

Phone: 952-698-4478

History for Every County

By: grabitsdm | March 15, 2011

Clearwater County Historical SocietyMinnesota has 87 counties, and there is a county historical society in each one of them. This statement is significant, but often might be said without really acknowledging how important that is.

Goodhue County Historical Society dates itself to 1869, but could also trace its ancestry to the Red Wing Historical Society in 1857. Others trace their ancestry to a county old settler’s association (to be a member, one had to become a permanent resident by a certain date). While all heraldic old settlers’ associations reached a point where death severely eroded membership and capacity, some of the old settler’s associations changed their organization to become the county historical society – such as the Cottonwood County Historical Societyin Windom.

Sorting out the origin of the concept to establish history entities by county is murky. It seems that as historians and governments organized history work that a deliberate choice was made to use the relatively stable county structure. After all, the last change to the number of counties in Minnesota was in 1922 when the legislature created Lake of the Woods County. More work should be done to determine the origin, however.

As the Great War ended, the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety had begun to organize the records of soldiers from Minnesota, as early as 1917. The Minnesota Legislature recognizing that the state had sent four times the number of men into World War I as it had into the American Civil War, knew it needed to make those records publicly accessible. Thus it passed the War Records Commission Act of 1919, which required a war records commission for every county. Based on that framework the Minnesota Historical Society embarked on a 60-year campaign to assist citizens in every county in establishing a countywide historical organization.

Some began a county historical society to take on the work of preserving the war records, such as the Wilkin County Historical Societyin Breckinridge. In other counties like Stevens, the war records commission later became the county historical society. As the War Records Commission Act wound down in 1925, it wasn’t long before the New Deal programs of the 1930s infused new money into organizing permanent county historical societies, such as the Stearns County Historical Society in 1936, now the Stearns History Museum accredited by the American Association of Museums.

People have asked why the Minnesota Historical Society would create what appears to be competition for itself. In the first decades of the twentieth century the reason generally was to popularize history and in so doing strengthen the discipline. That network now is critical support for a healthy state historical society.

How many states, like Minnesota, have a county historical organization in each and every county? This question was posed in February 2011 to those who work with local historical organizations across the country. Here is a chart of the responses:

State Counties County history organization* Percentage
Arizona 15 c. 7 47
Connecticut 8 4 50
Georgia 159 c. 80 50
Illinois 102 89 88
Indiana 92 92 100
Iowa 99 46 47
Michigan 83 63 76
Minnesota 87 87 100
Missouri 115 c. 102 89
New Mexico 33 12 36
New York 62 60 97
North Dakota 53 49 93
Ohio 88 77 88
Oregon 36 35 98
Pennsylvania 67 67 100
South Dakota 66 30 46
Texas 254 254 100
Wisconsin 72 c. 66 92

Some states, like Texas, actually have county historical commissions – formal functions of the county government. In the case of Texas, that’s a requirement and hence all counties have an entity responsible for that county’s history. Indiana, and other states, has a requirement of a county historian for every county. While the emphasis is not on organizations, most county historians are part of a countywide historical society. While there is no requirement to have a countywide agency in Minnesota, clearly the people of the state in each county decided that there would be such an organization.

Minnesota is not alone in having a county historical organization for every county. Of the 1,491 counties represented, approximately 1,220 have a countywide historical organization. That over 80 percent of these counties emphasize the need to coordinate the preservation of history and access to it at this level shows not only the commonality of the practice, but also the importance of the practice.

This thumbnail study is perhaps an urgent call to recommit to intentional, organized local history work. The heavy lifting of establishing many of these organizations came amid the agricultural depression of the 1920s and the Great Depression of the 1930s. During this recent so-called “Great Recession” of the 2000s, some leaders have questioned the need to continue to support history when there are so many other urgent needs. After all, so goes the logic, there is only a certain amount of money. True, but if our forebears found sufficient reason to start under much rougher times, then today’s stewards have even less reason not to continue the momentum.

MN Air National Guard Museum Video Tour

By: Joe Hoover | March 7, 2011

Volunteers show and describe objects in the Minnesota Air National Guard Museum's collection. Made during a site visit to the museum February 18th.

Unfortunately due to a user malfunction the video footage of the exterior the hanger or of their collections of planes outside did not turn out.

The museum is currently underway in its efforts to relocate to a new facility close by but just outside of the military compound so visitors will no longer need to go through security clearance before coming to the museum.

The camera used to shoot the footage was a much nicer Sony HDR-CX 550V. Read my review of using this camera to film the video and please share your thoughts!

Minnesota Air National Guard Museum

Building 670, The Cold War Alert Hangar

670 General Miller Drive

St. Paul, MN 55111-4114

(612) 713-2523


Big Picture for Local History

By: grabitsdm | March 2, 2011
The Line Media, a weekly Twin Cities online magazine, has begun a series of four thought pieces on the future of Minnesota.

In the first interview, with Tom Fischer from the University of Minnesota, the prediction is that the state will experience significant growth in the future. The reasons are many, but message for local historical organizations is that they need to be ready to record rapid change.

The second interviewis with Lars Leafblad, whom Minnesota Business magazine named the "Most Networked Man in the Twin Cities." Leafblad noted the age and disconnection of Minnesota's image. The state's image to the world of Gov. Wendell Anderson holding a fish on Time Magazine was created before many other things that have brought the state attention. And, although the state's businesses are admired and desired, very few are on short lists for industries likely to be significant in the future.

Since historical organizations are all about recording history as it happens, what is your sense of the state's future? What's happening now that you think will be significant in the future? Any suggestions for a new image for the state?

Video Tour of the Saint Peter State Hospital Museum

By: Joe Hoover | February 28, 2011

One of the advantages of this job is being able to get out to museums less traveled and in the case of the Saint Peter State Hospital Museum which dwells within the grounds of a maximum security psychiatric hospital - reservations are required. However, that day, the volunteers and staff were holding an open house to show off all the work done on the historic building to get the history museum ready for the public.


St. Peter State Hospital Museum

100 Freeman Drive

St. Peter, MN 56082

(507) 931-7250



BTW: this is Minnesota Local History's first podcast which I hope will be the first of many as we travel to different museums and historic sites around the state. One of the reasons for doing the podcast is to test and demonstrate ways to create media in variety of ways both on a shoestring budget and with Cadillac video and audio equipment.



As I do this, I hope folks will give advice and feed back on what they have done, what equipment they use and share tips for me and others out there.




30 Percent Satisfaction

By: grabitsdm | February 23, 2011

On February 8, 2011, state demographer Tom Gillaspy released the report Minnesota Milestones, which looks at 60 indicators of the state's progress. One of those was average wage, which showed an average of $21.85/hour (Weekly Wage/40 hours) for 2009.

In 2006 Local History Services conducted a survey of salary paid for work at local historical organizations. The average for an executive director was $15.18/hour, curators $12.27/hour, and educators $14.45/hour. Those are the three most common employees. According to the Milestone report, however, the average wage in 2006 was $21.66/hour. Average wages were computed from the Minnesota Department of Employment & Economic Development's Positively Minnesota online database.

It's hard to compare apples to apples between these two datasets. Few of those reporting in the local history salary survey in 2006 had benefits, so one difference in the rate may be that the state average includes fringe benefits. Deducting 20 percent for benefits brings the average weekly down to $17.32. (Sample rates of benefits as a percentage of compensation found online ranged from 10-30 percent.)

Granted, some may argue that satisfaction is part of the remuneration. Perhaps it is, knowing that you preserved something important for the community, made a key connection for a genealogist to piece together elements of their family story, inspiring a child to think more critically and broadly, helping a veteran face hard memories heroically, providing many people comfort in times of great need, etc. The chance to make a difference for people in the work we do is very real, and highly satisfying.

Still, one has to ask if the work of an executive director of a local historical organization in Minnesota is potentially worth 70 to 88 percent of the average worker? A full 64 percent of executive directors have college degrees or higher, and thus are highly trained and skilled. Whereas Minnesotans with college degrees in 2006 was 30.4 percent.

In what ways might boards of local historical organizations use the Minnesota Milestones report to benchmark the progress of their organizations? How crucial is it to address compensation to keep talent in local communities?