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.
The majority of museums and local historical socities around the Minnesota are small organizations which, if not all volunteer, employ between 1-5 people. However they are the most vulnerable and are often run by people with limited resources and skills to be able to reap the benefits of available information technologies (IT). When they do adopt IT strategies, their potential to survive and grow increases since they are then able to participate in a larger global environment. The challenge lies with these organizations adopting the appropriate IT solution that fits their needs. Often the tools available are either too expensive or require more resources than readily available. Cloud computing offers an opportunity to support the growth of local historical societies by enabling low cost IT solutions.
What Is Cloud Computing?
Cloud-computing services require no software to purchase and install. Cloud computing applications reside on external servers and are accessed through internet or mobile network connections. This reduces the cost of paying for IT infrastructure and applying it to suit the organization's needs. Cloud computing is a recent term that refers to both the applications delivered as services over the internet and the hardware/software in data centers in which a pool of virtualized, dynamically- scalable computing power, storage, platforms and services are delivered on demand.
Cloud-based services can be categorized into three models:
- Software as Service (SaS): service providers make available applications for personal and business use.
- Infrastructure as Service (IaS): offers hardware services which may include virtual and physical servers.
- Platform as Service (PaS): provides a framework and tools for developers to build their own applications.
Although cloud computing is not without concerns about security, stability, and data ownership, for small museums, cloud computing hits a particular sweet spot. With cloud services, small organizations enjoy the benefits of not having to deploy physical infrastructure like file and e-mail servers, storage systems or shrink-wrapped software. Plus, the "anywhere, anytime" availability of these solutions, means hassle-free collaboration between volunteers and employees by simply using a browser. Another feature of cloud computing is that it's easily scalable. Many of these solutions can work for a business with 2 employees or 2,000.
One of the greatest advantages is that the user is no longer tied to a traditional computer to use an application, or has to buy a version specifically configured for a phone, PDA or other device. (In theory) any device that can access the Internet will be able to run a cloud-based application.
Regardless of the device being used, there may be fewer maintenance issues. Users will not have to worry about storage capacity, compatibility or other matters.
Cloud-computing fees are typically subscription-based. The vendors usually charge on a month-to-month or annual basis.
Pooling resources into large clouds cuts costs and increases utilization by delivering resources only for as long as those resources are needed. Cloud computing is particularly beneficial for small and medium organizations, where effective and affordable IT tools are critical for helping them become more productive without spending a great deal of money on in-house resources and technical equipment.
PROS of Cloud Computing
- Fast Deployment
- Lower cost/No Capital Expense
- Reduced IT maintenance
- Elastic and Unlimited Scalability
- Energy Efficiency
- Reliability (service & data)
- Better Resource Utilization
CONS of Cloud Computing
- Information Security
- Physical Security
- Long Term Offline Storage
- Bandwidth Bottleneck
- Potential Vendor Lock-in
- Lack of control during downtime
Free or low cost Cloud Services
Here are some suggestions for you. Feel free to add to the list in your comments below.
Web Site Services
Looking for a free web site or time to up date that old site then look at these options...
If you are a beginner and hate the idea of getting technical, then go with Weebly. Their drag and drop system makes it amazingly simple to get started.
If you are looking for a web site with scalability as your web presence grows, then go with Wordpress.com. It utilizes the same WordPress software that anyone can download from WordPress.org. With WordPress.com, the hosting and managing of the software is taken care of. In the future you could move your web site with ease to another hosting service if you wanted more control - something not done as easily with Weebly.
The ease of use in Google sites and collaboration abilities make it suitable for team work and collaboration; Its easy setup and limited design makes it suitable for small personal sites or group participation like club sites.
Free (limited service for Non-profits)
Do you want more control of your web site, are more advanced, want to customize your site? You might want to consider signing up on Dreamhost which offers free web hosting to 501c3 non-profits.
MailChimp has a lot of great features, however, most of these great features come at an extra charge to the regular cost of service. Their general pricing structure can works great for small businesses but can get pricey for larger organizations or larger mailing lists.
The most widely-used cloud-based productivity suite, Google Docs is efficient, provides document collaboration and tight integration with other Google functions. Plus it's more compatible with Microsoft documents than other online services of its kind.
$50 per user per year (A free version of Google Apps for Nonprofits is available)
If you want to integrate Google Docs into a collaborative workspace, complete with email and calendaring, Google Apps is the way to go.
$4.99 - $49.00 Direct
Dropbox is a file synchronization and sharing solution that can also function as an online backup service. It works by letting the user simply drag and drop their files and folders into a Dropbox folder.
LogMeIn Free offers free remote access to your desktop so you can open files, check your email, run programs and stay productive from yourmobile device or any computer over the Internet and it's user-friendly enough for non-techies.
Outright.com is an online accounting service that fits light accounting needs, such as tracking income expenses and tax obligations. However, it is new and lacks features like invoicing, credit card payments (with a merchant account), account management, and check writing that are available in other cloud based accounting services.
Internally the Minnesota Historical Society has been estimating challenges it faces going forward, which it periodically does and is good to do. This activity prompted me to think about what local historical organizations may need to consider going forward. I presented a session on this in 2009, and little has changed since then. Essentially there seems to be five compelling issues that need to be addressed, and soon.
1. Mission-based presence. Most organizations have a geography to their mission, whether a county, a city, or whatever. Even those that don't have a geographical focus do have a mission focus. Whatever the focus the organization dedicated to a specific history needs to consider what its presence has to look like in order to be successful. The cost of communication through traditional means continues to increase, while newer media is not always accepted by our main supporters. What can you do to continue to have a strong presence in your mission focus? We simply cannot afford to hole-up in our facilities. Leadership is all about putting yourself on the line, and to do so you have to be an active member of whatever community for whose history you are responsible.
2. 21st-century user expectations for products. Every concern needs to reconsider what it offers from the perspective of the user. Peter Drucker, a renowned management thinker, spoke of this as adopting an "outside-in" view of your company. Too many history organizations tend to think of things from the inside-out: how can we organize better in order to be more efficient? The trouble is that if no one desires what you efficiently offer (even though "they should"), you risk becoming irrelevant. What is it that people who use your current services want? What do nonusers and especially newer residents need and can you offer that? Do you know?
3. Developing knowledge workers for history organizations. The economy and demographics are changing. As historical organizations we preserve the memory of why and how things have changed, so that these are changing is good news because that means more to document. The economy is often said to be changing over from an industrial "make stuff" model to a knowledge-based "know stuff" model. The machinery of the economy then is increasingly in the heads of workers rather than on a factory floor. In a sense history organizations have always been in the so-called new economy of knowledge workers, since history organizations preserve and provide knowledge. For once, we may be ahead of the curve. However, a trend of knowledge workers is to more frequently change jobs. No longer does a worker put in 40 years on the assembly line. The expectation is to move frequently. With the steeper learning curve of knowledge work, what does job-migration mean for the way we recruit and train workers? As to demographics and the browning of Minnesota, equipping non-Whites for work in local history is imperative in order to assure continuance of local history organizations. Further, for organizations in more rural areas, we need to be part of the solution to depopulation by demonstrating to the youth how it is possible to live and make a living without relocating to a larger population area. Too often those in rural areas apologize for not having something or being better than they. Having grown up in a town of less than 2,000 people at the time, it is tempting to think this way at times and I certainly did not stay (In my defense, my parents moved us to Arlington when I was 10, and today I live in a house that belonged to my great uncle. So, in a sense history does keep me where I live). Resist the temptation to think negatively about size because you can't build on scarcity, only on what you have. Besides, there are a surplus of great reasons to choose to live in any of the 850+ cities or 1,700+ townships across the state. Local history should be able to document why.
4. Shift to project-based budgets. Over time philanthropy has shifted from funding bricks-and-mortar projects to funding programmatic offerings, and now it seems that the shift from general operations to project-based grants is here to stay. That means the savvy manager has to create flexibility in the fiscal budget, often with employees left hanging in the balance of phrases like "Position subject to renewal contingent on funding." So, not only do we have to worry about the knowledge worker leaving for greener pastures but also about our pasture drying up. Still funding mission is very possible for those willing to put in additional effort to "projectize" elements of the workplan to free up general support for tasks that may not be grant-worthy. A number of local history organizations have done this for collections-related initiatives like inventory, catalog, and backlog reduction. Still, we should be asking, "how can an organization remain diligent through the intentional application of resources to problems if funding is so seemingly opportunistic and uncertain?" Time will tell, but for the moment I know grappling with project-based budgets has to be perplexing and exhausting.
5. Evidence and access for the 21st century. In rethinking all that we do, the questions of what to collect, how much to collect, and how will we make what we collect accessible, all need to be on the table. Some local history organizations have taken the extreme, though perhaps necessary, step of a collecting moratorium until they have solid answers for these questions. In a time when the common expectation for access is 24/7 and from anywhere in the world, how do local history organizations that are inherently tied to the physical address the virtual? Although space for digital assets seems endless, it isn't. Think of digitization as a way to expand your storage, but remember that this too is not infinite, because nothing is infinite. The boundaries are costs in terms of time, money, and opportunity. The opportunity cost is that for whatever you do, there is now something you cannot do. Returning to the public repeatedly to seek funds for more space is something to be mindful about, whether for a building or for electronic capacity. Collectively we as a field need to figure out how to reduce the pace of space consumption before we fatigue our supporters.
Quite a few history organizations are very good at these points already. Too many, however, are locked into patterns established long ago. Those patterns were probably quite appropriate at one time. With more than one million nonprofits currently in the U.S., and the promise of an additional 12 million more to come as Boomers retire, the targets for charitable giving will increase the competition for finite funding. If local history nonprofits do not have the courage to meet the 21st century on its own terms, they should not expect to be competitive.
However, the inherent purposes of local history wedded with adaptations for the 21st century should make local history nearly unbeatable as a worthy recipient of funding. People are most often self-centered. They want to see themselves in your exhibits and programs and publications. They want to know what's in it for them. Yes, a great many try to overcome their self-absorption, which is what we all should strive to do, but in the end we are still naturally interested in ourselves. Local history in its current form was started to help people in the present (often veterans) and to document the present for the future. Local history is all about us, which at the core should keep local history quite relevant. Thus, if you can ask yourself in light of the five challenges above, "How will we help our neighbors?" and "What should we tell the future about our neighbors?" - local history should remain competitive by remaining true to our purposes.
We'd love to hear from anyone with examples of how they are addressing any of the issues above.
MALHM essentially started when Irene Bender from the Cokato Historical Society and Kevin Britz from Stearns History Museum would meet regularly to discuss museum work. Together they sent out feelers to other historical organizations about forming an alliance, which led to the first annual meeting at the Stearns History Museum in the fall of 1991. Early projects included successfully building a membership base and presenting a session at the American Association for State and Local History Conference in Miami in 1992.
A Team of Voices
Sue Garwood perhaps summed up MALHM's strength quite succinctly when she said, "The Minnesota Historical Society with all of its staff has a team of voices to address challenges, and that's what local historical organizations became through MALHM." Working together the one or two active volunteers or occasional paid staff from each historical organization could pool their knowledge, skills and abilities to solve problems.
Indeed, MALHM was there to aid their peers when a tornado struck the Cokato Historical Society, a fire gutted the Humphrey Museum in Waverly, and flooding devastated the Yellow Medicine County Historical Society in Granite Falls in the 1990s. MALHM reached out to Isanti County Historical Society following its arson fire this year. Thus MALHM focused on disaster recovery and preserving museum collections.
Perhaps most importantly MALHM raised awareness and adherence to the standards with its "Alliance for the Millennium Collections Initiative" in 2001-2002. The result was a comprehensive manual that demonstrated the standards for all aspects of museum collections.
Always Been Practical
When MALHM started there were about 350 or so historical organizations - today around 500 - in Minnesota. The idea was to get practical tools into these organizations, and to meet them where they were.
Chris Schuelke noted that MALHM saw from the beginning that "relevance of what we do is dependent on adherence to the standards." The practicality of relevance is that meeting standards is basic to survival, but meeting standards can be done through a variety of practices.
Among more recent accomplishments have been being instrumental in getting the Museum Property Act of 2004 passed and participating as a founding member of the Minnesota History Coalition to advocate for money from the Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund to be spent wisely on history. Both statewide measures are very practical tools to build from a legacy of success.
Peers Helping Peers Serving the Public
MALHM has been a tremendous asset to the local history community in Minnesota for the last 20 years because of its emphasis on "peers helping peers." Because of MALHM's accomplishments the field is stronger, the state is admired, and most importantly the public is far better served because MALHM has spread standards, increased relevance of local history, and encouraged continuous refinement to the way history is preserved and accessed.
Well done, good and faithful servant, and happy birthday!
FYI: This was filmed with an iPhone with a mic adapter.
As is often said, those who work in local history have as part of their compensation an enormous amount of job satisfaction. Others respond that job satisfaction hardly feeds a family. The last salary survey (2006) conducted by the Minnesota Historical Society showed the average leadership salary at about $29,390 per year. There's no question that those who work in local history are undercompensated for the amount of training, experience and skill brought to these critical jobs.
However, local historical organizations are not exactly flush with dollars, or they likely would compensate better and offer more universally things like retirement, health, and dental coverage. How often isn't a director both female and married to someone with family benefits? With a lack of resources, some organizations rely on situations like this even though such organizations express a desire to compensate for work performance. Work, rather than other circumstances, should dictate compensation. Pay the worker what her work merits.
Economist Richard Florida wrote about How the Crash will Reshape America. (Atlantic Monthly, March 2009) In this essay Florida notes that it took a number of manufacturing job incomes to make a household cash flow prior to World War II. As laws improved so did compensation. He believes that the service industry - local history jobs included - is roughly in the same situation that manufacturing was some 65 years ago, and that the federal government may be wise to focus on improving conditions for service industry compensation. He terms this "The Great Reset."
The reset cuts two ways for local history. For the workers, improved compensation will make it far more possible to earn a living. For communities improved compensation means both retention of skilled workers and more money in the local economy. However, for local historical organizations this encouragement means a 'heads-up' that more financial resources may be needed in the future if the federal government pursues this suggestion.
As with many reforms, if this were to be adopted, it might not occur for a number of years. Indeed, the essay itself is a few years old, but was re-aired on Minnesota Public Radio two weeks ago from a July 2010 broadcast. Perhaps the delay in implementation will be sufficient to start the hard work of enhancing revenue streams through more robust membership rosters, wider opportunities to donate, expanded earned income, and more productive endowments.