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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Encouraging Good Holiday Letters

By: grabitsdm | November 24, 2010

Praest Hus at Gammelgarden near Scandia, Minnesota

Last year this blog posed a question on Collecting Christmas Letters, for which there was a solid response. To expand on this question, are there any historical organizations offering training on how to write good annual summary letters?

One reason that a historical organization might offer such classes is that such an activity might be seen as relevant and useful to the public. How often have historical organizations been accused of not being relevant or even an "optional extra"? By offering something that people can immediately use, historical organizations can further dispel doubts about relevancy.

There are other far more practical reasons, perhaps, than just plain relevancy.

Since everything should start with mission, and missions of local historical organizations are usually to collect, interpret and preserve, training the public to write solid letters would go a long way towards that mission.

Articulate and insightful letters that evaluate a person or family's experience in the past twelve months are better additions to a research library than letters that lack such clarity.

By providing such classes a historical organization may attract a new audience that it has not previously served. Those people for whom the organization is new may never have thought much about history, their own legacy, or the good work being done by the organization.

By attracting new people, the organization may find new friends willing not only to donate a copy of their annual holiday summary, but also willing to contribute money and time.

Here are a few useful sites for learning how to write solid holiday letters:
How to Write Family Christmas Letters
Seven Tips for Sparkling Christmas Letters
Christmas News Letters - Suggestions and Examples
Christmas Letter Tips.com

Phone books call it a day

By: grabitsdm | Information Technology | November 13, 2010
The St. Paul Pioneer Press for Friday November 12, 2010, printed an Associated Press article by Michael Felberbaum, "Familiar phone books dying in digital age." As Internet penetration edges up in all parts of the state (see Electronic Access for Rural Minnesota), people rely on resources that are both more easily searched and perceived to be more up-to-date because people can often edit their own contact information.

Further, as the article notes, only about 11 percent of Americans rely solely on a landline, and cell numbers are not listed in phone books. Other estimates show that fully 25 percent of Americans only use cell phones. Thus a quarter of Americans would not be found using traditional phone books. It makes sense that phone books may disappear. Already New York, Florida, and Pennsylvania approved Verizon's request to stop printing residential listings in those states. Virginia is considering it. How long will it be before providers stop printing phone books in Minnesota?

While some may worry about this change and only see the loss of a resource, as some are fond of saying, "History is all about change. If changes ever stops, historical organizations will be out of business." Local historical organizations are always adapting, and this news story represents another call to arms.

Disappearance of phone books, though, poses a problem for local historical organizations. Phone books grew out of older "city directories" that enabled people to locate services and other people. Both have genealogical and research value to local historical organizations, and both existed together for a quite a while in some places. In some places city directories were dropped, but in some places they continue to be created. However, there does not appear to be a widely available tool to reach out and touch someone that has grown up alongside of phone books, as phone books did with city directories. Thus the problem is one of adaptation. Local historical organizations cannot migrate to a new resource with the loss of an older one.

In the past decade use of research libraries at local historical organizations has increased. With the convulsions seen among media formerly only in print formats, and phone books may be added to the list, access to these basic research tools calls into question whether the growth seen in the last decade will continue. Local organizations have put a lot of resources into developing strong research libraries to serve their growing clientele. In order to continue to encourage use, of course, adding resources is necessary. So how will local history research libraries compensate for the loss of phone books?

What might replace these mechanisms that allow us to connect certainly is hard to see. Perhaps to replace phone books as a research tool, local historical organizations will have to rely on the generosity of the constituents they serve who would be willing to download the contacts in their cell phones periodically or when upgrading. This begs many questions about privacy, of course, not to mention capturing people who don't know their descendants might look for them in the future. Or, perhaps historical organizations will have to begin to mine connections of members linked to them on social media forums. Or, perhaps local historical organizations will need to develop resources beyond directories that their members and others might willingly populate. There may be a number of alternative resources in addition that local history research libraries could name.

Local historical organizations have amazing resources for certain periods of time, but in order to connect these resources to future generations, it seems as though additional records need to be generated or found to represent those living in the first decades of the 21st century. How are local historical organizations embracing this change in the loss of phone books? What other resources are you beginning to collect?

Web Development Smackdown

By: Joe Hoover | Information Technology | November 12, 2010
Currently eight historical societies have posted reviews of their organization's web site redesigns on this blog.  Looking over the posts, there are some interesting takeaways.

For most historical societies this was not their first design but this was their second or third redesign. For a couple of organizations the redesign was necessitated by organizational and branding changes, but for most, web site redesigns appear to be about the need for better access due to obsolete software or advancements in back-end accessibility making it desirable to change the technology on how the web site is maintained. For the Edina Historical Society they gained more control, for the Morrison County Historical Society they improved the productivity and efficiency of updating their web site.

Common Themes

There are some common themes on what the organizations were looking for when building or redesigning a web site.

  1. Cheap/affordable - This is probably the hands down leader in what organizations are looking for. Whether it is the cost of the software, hosting service or in operational costs of maintaining it, finding a solution that fits in an organization's budget is critical.

  2. Easy - For many organizations especially those with no web skills, the ability that it be simple to add and update content this is also a top concern.

  3. Foolproof/security - no one likes when a site goes down, or having to deal with coding problems or - heaven forbid security issues if they site gets hacked.

  4. Control - For some organizations this is not important but for others it is either desirable or critical to have control over the both the updating of their web site and the branding of the web site.

Unfortunately these four common themes are usually not compatible with each other.

Cheap vs Foolproof vs. Easy vs. Control

Build your own
Handcoding your site while cheap and offering the most control is neither easy or foolproof.  Many have used or are using the WYSIWYG web editor Dreamweaver to update their web site and while it can still allow a great amount of control, the application is not cheap and even if it is set up correctly for some it still may not be foolproof or easy enough. There are other WYSIWYG editors some free or cheaper than Dreamweaver however the old adage “You get what you pay for” fits well here.

CMS it
While there are some great solutions such as making use of free open source Content Management System (CMS) software such as Drupal or Wordpress or low cost do-it-yourself software like ExpressionEngine which can make building a web site very affordable if you do it yourself, and easier to manage, these solutions still cost in time and require experience to set up correctly. Also, if  not set up right or updated when security patches are released they can pose a security problem.

Both "Building your own" and "CMS it" solutions require a hosting provider as well. There are also some very good deals with hosting services which will host your own web pages, but again they are low-cost, not free. However if you are paying $100 versus $10 a month for hosting that extra $90 buys you a whole lot of attention from your hosting provider should the server go down.

Let others deal with it
If you are not bothered by lack of control and like the ease and cost of having your city or county host your organization’s web pages on their site,  this could be the way for your organization to go. However, more than likely you will have to play by their rules and timetable. In the Edina Historical Society’s case the city did not even allow for linking to external sites, so linking to the organization’s Facebook page or other social media was out of the question.

Put your web in the cloud
If you don’t mind ads, there are many free services such as Wordpress.com (WordPress.com utilizes the same WordPress software but the hosting and managing of the software is taken care of by the team at WordPress.com. ) that you build your web site with their tools. There are even some sites like Weebly.com that will allow you to create a basic free ad free web site but the hope is that you will upgrade to to their more fully featured “Pro” account. These sites allow you to a build web site with no technical skills and are much more foolproof and secure than building your own CMS site - and for simple web sites these are great solutions and will can even give you more solutions if you upgrade to their paid services. However,  they do not lend themselves to a great deal of customization especially when you need a database or software solution.

The moral of the post...
There are thousands of ways to build the wrong web site and no way to build a perfect web site. And as Mary Warner said in her blog post, "There are gazillions of ways to structure a website." This unfortunately is the nature of the beast since every web site doomed to obsolescence as soon as it are placed online and that there is no prefect solution, that every organization has to balance out their own 'cheap', 'foolproof',  'easy' and 'control' needs when building their web site. However, one of the key things in building a web site is planning. That may be taking an inventory of your current site, looking at your organizations needs, surveying your customers, etc... I highly recommend if folks have not already is to look over our Web Site Worksheet and Web Standards Guide which were written to be resources in web site planning. It was great to see some of the organizations listed here do things like surveying stakeholders, useing wireframes and reflecting on their web sites traffic by looking through Google Analytics stats.

Are there other observations on common issues/themes between these sites and your sites?

Lake County Historical Society launches updated website

By: grabitsdm | Information Technology | November 5, 2010
Lake County Historical Society launched their first website in 2000 with a grant from Iron Range Resources. When I started working at the Society in 2009 it was evident that since the website’s launch there was little or no maintenance done or resources dedicated for this purpose.

We currently have two independent yet connected websites. We have the Lake County Historical Society site  and our business website for the Lighthouse Bed & Breakfast.

The new sites were needed for a variety of reasons:

a)      To regain control over our domain names. We had been sold by Internet service providers so many times we couldn’t find out who the administrators were for our domains.

b)      To bring the society into the 21st century, the old site was filled with obsolete features, erroneous information, and the content itself was ten years old.

c)      To re-brand the organization itself and to create the image that we are a modern and active organization. This is done by having a site with administrative privileges so we can edit page content without the aid of our designers.

d)      This may be unique to our organization, but we needed to create two mirrored websites that allow for an easy flow back and forth between the B&B website and Historical Society site. It is very important to me to make sure that people looking at the Lighthouse B&B website understand the mission of the Lake County Historical Society and that we are preservationists, not operating a north shore tourist trap.

The Lake County Historical Society was very fortunate in the redesign of the websites. The Lighthouse B&B website was a donation from Creative Arc (a St Paul based company) CEO Paul Larson. Paul and his wife have been repeat guests at the B&B and as business was slow at the time, Paul offered his team to design a new site for us to keep his designers fresh. We accepted his offer and asked him to include the Society’s site as well because I knew before I met him I had to bring these two entities back together.

I invited Julie, the lead designer and her husband up to the B&B to spend the night so they could experience the B&B and gave them a tour of our museums and talked about how important it was for the historical aspect of the B&B to be present in the website.

We received a grant from the Two Harbors Area Visitors Bureau for the development of the LCHS site as it serves to bring tourists to our area and visitors to our local hotels.

 The B&B website was created entirely by Creative Arc from content in the old website and additional images taken by Julie and her husband during their stay.

For the LCHS site Creative Arc provided me with what they call a Basecamp website. On this Basecamp there was a wireframe of our site that I could log into and edit text content and photos. I have roughly over 100 hours into scanning, editing, researching content, writing, and uploading for the site.

We began by using the existing sites as platforms for the new ones. We knew what we wanted out of each site and the deficiencies of the previous sites.

For the B&B it was obvious, encourage people to reserve a room and come stay with us, and explain how their money would benefit the public through historic preservation.

The LCHS site needed to do demonstrate to people that we are active, and that we provide services to our members and patrons, and that by being a member of the Society their history is preserved and the community benefits.

I had a lot of experience with my own websites from when I was an aspiring musician so the only thing I had to learn was how to use the editing engine (Expression) provided by Creative Arc. I am still, and I believe always will be learning new things about administering websites as technology changes.

The B&B website is performing admirably for us generating new business. I am having a hard time calibrating the impact of the new LCHS website. I was hoping that it would drive people to become members but I fear the “Charges for research and reproduction” section might be scaring people away. If nothing else the new website at least demonstrates that we are cognitive of the need to maintain a fresh and modern web presence. It does not save time as I have to do much of the editing myself. It has come down to editing the calendar on a quarterly basis and our projects list annually.          

We have moved our entire web hosting to Creative Arc and pay them the annual fees for both sites. In addition if I need to make a change in the site that the ExpressionEngine can’t perform I pay an hourly fee to Creative Arc for each task. This seldom happens, so our website redesign has been cost effective.

Mel Sando
Lake County Historical Society

Fundraising In Hard Times

By: grabitsdm | November 2, 2010
On Friday October 29, 2010, the Minnesota Alliance of Local History Museums held their annual fall meeting and awards program in the new Laird Norton Addition to the Winona County Historical Society. For those of you that missed it, the topic of the panel discussion was on fundraising in hard times, with three specific examples.

Two of the examples were capital projects, but each is unique to its own circumstances. The third example is a funding stream opportunity.

The first capital project discussed was the one that resulted in the Laird Norton Addition. The Winona County Historical Society had been through a capital campaign in the past, which experience guided their actions as much as a 2005 needs assessment. The project was originally estimated increase space by 15,000 square feet at a cost of $3.1 million ($206.67/sf). By the time of bidding, the additional space decreased to 12,000 square feet and the cost mushroomed to $4.6 million ($383.34/sf).

What worked in the favor of Winona County Historical Society was an in-house capital campaign, a challenge grant of $1.5 million, an 11 percent decrease in costs of materials between bidding and construction (resulting in a final cost of about $375/sf), and a board member that took the lead to work with Executive Director Mark Peterson to raise about $3 million. All of this was made possible through solid planning and seeking out lots of advice. Additionally, Mark's board member was even keeled and never let any of the several trials adversely affect what WCHS set out to accomplish.

The second facility capital campaign has not started. Peter Olson of the Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota in Mankato detailed efforts so far to create a permanent home for this new children's museum.

Like Winona County Historical Society that started its campaign on the basis of a history of success, the Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota is starting off right. They've hired a seasoned professional to guide the organization, a lead donor has committed about a quarter of the estimated $4.5 million to renovate or build new, the board is actively leading the capital campaign ably assisted by the executive director, lots of local businesses have stepped up to donate key strategic elements including some communications pieces, and a couple of temporary "pop-up" museum experiments have exposed thousands of people to the museum.

The Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota estimates its space requirements at about 25,000 square feet ($180/sf). Both this example and the Winona County Historical Society vary from estimates of national costs per square foot as discussed in Museums Cost How Much?

Both projects are founded on a track record of success (one new, one 75 years in the making). Both have a strong sense of their visitors and visitor needs. Both accepted donated services and products, though some were not ideal they opted to deal with the less than ideal. That's an important recognition going into any extensive project. Finally, both were determined to build for the long term. Museums are meant to be significant assets in a community, and both projects have kept that in the forefront of their minds.

The third panelist spoke about Market America, which has an opportunity for nonprofits to reap the benefit of direct sales between consumers and major brands. The money generated comes from the normal (or slightly reduced) commission for products that consumers pay really without knowing it when shopping at bricks-and-mortar stores. In order to participate, the nonprofit must be a 501(c)(3) - that special slice of nonprofits. To learn more about this contact Dave Lindley through the Washington County Historical Society.

All three examples showed that active participation by the organization and its leaders is key to success in fundraising in hard times. What's your experience? Has fundraising been difficult? Have you noticed a difference during the downturn?

Traveling Exhibits Inaugural Run

By: grabitsdm | October 25, 2010
Last week the new traveling exhibits program announced the itineraries of the first two traveling exhibits from the Minnesota Historical Society.

The Minnesota Legislature in its 2009 legislation appropriating money from the Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund supported a new exhibit at the Minnesota History Center, along with a traveling version. While the content for the new exhibit, which will complement the Northern Lights curriculum, is being developed, the first exhibits to debut will be welcome additions to many local history partners for many years to come.

The new exhibit, titled "Our Minnesota," is about the regions of the state: prairie, north woods, and cities. In discussing the state's geography the groundwork is nearly universally laid with maps. Minnesota on the Map will prepare visitors to local history partners to view "Our Minnesota" and its traveling editions in the near future.

In preparing to launch the new traveling exhibits program, the Society conducted a survey of potential host sites across the state, as well as interested individuals. The overwhelming demand? Minnesota Homefront, which is the traveling edition of the popular Minnesota's Greatest Generation exhibit at the Minnesota History Center. 'Homefront' shows how the regions of the state experienced the 1930s-1950s.

Recipients were chosen through a competitive process. Each proposal demonstrated strong measurable outcomes and thorough discussions of need and rationale for hosting. Congratulations to all the hosts!

Minnesota on the Map:
Debut for the Minnesota Legislature at the History Center, Nov. 20-Jan. 16
Municipal Building Commission, Minneapolis, Jan. 29- March 20
Nobes County Historical Society, Worthington, April 2-May 22
Winona County Historical Society, Winona, May 28-July 24
Minnesota Discovery Center, Chisholm, August 6-September 25

Minnesota Homefront:
Debut for Minnesota Legislature at the State Capitol, Nov. 15-Nov. 29
Carver County Historical Society, Waconia, Jan. 28-March 6
Dodge County Historical Society, Mantorville, March 19-May 8
Virginia Area Historical Society, Virginia, May 21-July 10
Wabasha Heritage Preservation Commission, Wabasha, July 23-Sept. 11

Role for local history during church closures

By: grabitsdm | October 18, 2010
//commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Assumptionchurch2.jpgNews over the past weekend that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis would restructure it parishes by closing or merging congregations with others brought to mind all of the same challenges of relocating membership, maintenance costs, manpower shortages, and more long faced by rural churches of many denominations.

The news and reaction does not mention the impact to historical resources as a result of what may be necessary decisions. Every place has a history, and has generated historical records that researchers will want access to in the future. What local history organizations could do should be prioritized by time, resources, and energy available.

One of the easiest things local historical organizations can do when they learn of the closure of a congregation in its area is to pose the question, "Where will the records go?" At the very minimum the local historical organization should know where to send those who are later bound to inquire. However, be prepared appraise the records if the congregation offers them to you: there is a certain amount of responsibility to make them accessible.

The local historical organization additionally should collect as much as it can about the merger or dissolution. While many things happen daily, and it is the job of local history organizations to document history as it happens, not everything can be. Some events are more self-apparently important (e.g., I-35 Bridge Collapse) than others, and certainly the closure of virtually any institution in the community will be significant in the future.

Some local historical organizations who recognize the significance of events like this will even take their service to the community a step further. Such organizations have created special exhibits on the history of the church, others will host memory nights where members can verbalize what their church had meant to them, and still others might conduct formal oral histories with members. All of these kinds of activities not only capture history, but can prove cathartic. History can promote healing.

Other aspects to consider when a congregation opts to close or merge deal with tangible reminders of history. Certainly material culture of the congregation could be evaluated for inclusion in a local historical society's collection. These should be evaluated on the same basis as any other donation, and must be able to relate several stories and have the integrity of authenticity. The church buildings also need to be carefully considered: is there an appropriate reuse? how will the building be maintained? mothballed?

What are your experiences with closing churches? How have you chosen to preserve the history of those congregations?

Mimicry for Professional Capacity

By: grabitsdm | October 13, 2010
In their book, "Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives," Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler examine a number of behaviors exhibited by networks. Local historical organizations in Minnesota, and really across the country, are an example of a network. Those who volunteer and work in the field tend to know and associate with one another - just look at all of the local historical organizations on social media sites like Facebook to see just how connected local history museums are.

Many well-meaning museum professionals have expressed concern over the capacity of smaller museums to address emerging standards. That sentiment is perhaps unfounded in general, if it is valid for isolated cases. The reason is the network of small local history museums.

Networks of people are fairly organic, the authors show. The way individuals are connected are varied, with some being more central and others being more peripheral. There are pros and cons to every position as things work their way across the network. The way things move is often through mimicry, and local historical organizations as much as individuals are hardwired to mimic what others do. This can easily be seen in new organizations that take a look at what's going on with their neighbors, which often leads to adopting strategies wholesale. Historical organizations are often exhorted not to "reinvent the wheel." That may or may not be for the best.

Those located more centrally in a network often run across things more quickly than those that are located more on the periphery. This is why isolated examples of lack of capability may occur, or why some adopt bar-raising tools more readily. However, as the authors show, adopting positive traits is higher probability than adopting negative behavior.

For those concerned about capacity to address standards, one only need to look at the quick adoption of PastPerfect Museum Software. In the past ten years in Minnesota, the number of users has gone from about 3 to about 100 of the roughly 500 local historical organizations. The software is raising the capacity of local historical organizations to manage documentary collections in order to preserve and make accessible local history.

Another bar-raising tool that may be at the point of PastPerfect a decade ago is the new Standards and Excellence Program for History Organizations (StEPs) from the American Association for State and Local History. Launched last year and already six organizations in Minnesota are using it, more are considering it, and possibly because six other organizations piloted the StEPs program in 2007-2008. Historical organizations mimic one another when it comes to adopting positive behaviors that lead to professional practices.

Critics who worry about local capacity, though, may point out that local historical organizations mimic counterproductive behavior, too. That's true, and we all can probably remember something we picked up along the way that turned out not to be such a good idea after all. Negative experiences help us learn, too.

Other than the Minnesota Historical Society, to which organizations do you turn when you need advice about history work? Why? What is it about their work that impresses you?

History Overnight

By: grabitsdm | Interpretation | Preservation & Facilities | October 6, 2010
Historic Dayton House in Worthington, MinnesotaMinnPost on Saturday October 2, 2010, ran an article on Linden Hills, a two-mansion historic site complex in Little Falls, that discussed the competing concerns when a house museum allows for overnight stays.

This blend between historic house museum and bed & breakfast is not surprising considering the economic times. Small nonprofits need to look under every rock and pillowcase to find resources to preserve the past, and those funds are elusive. Perhaps with the growing popularity of so-called "stay-cations" offering a historic house museum as a place to stay overnight could appear to be a win-win.

The stroke of genius in allowing people to stay in a historic house museum is that these museums recognize that buildings were built for a purpose. In the case of historic house museums, they were originally built to house people and are generally not as well suited to museums. Allowing people to stay in them fulfills the purpose for which the house museum was designed and thus potentially furthers the building's preservation and the organization's mission.

The work of history, though, is not just about preservation. It is also about access. A colleague of mine often tells me there is absolutely no reason to save anything, unless we can figure out how to make what we save accessible and relevant. The blending of museum and B&B also meets this admonition as guests have unparalleled access to the past as they get to rest in its comforts. Not only can they put themselves in the shoes of those that lived in the past by walking the same halls to the same toilets, but they can literally dream where others dreamt.

As with everything else, this blending does not come without risk. Certainly curators and conservators might easily point out the risk to the collections on account of such far reaching access. The collections may be further at risk from plumbing needed to allow occupancy, since it is never a question of if a pipe will leak, but when. And, if the "breakfast" part of B&B involves cooking in the historic house there is also the issue of infestation and migratory residues.

Further risks include working with state departments that regulate kitchens, local building officials who monitor code compliance for occupancy, and the Internal Revenue Service for potential Unrelated Business Income. There may be others.

Linden Hills is not the only historic house museum to offer this opportunity in Minnesota. Among the them are Dayton House in Worthington and the Two Harbors Light Station on the North Shore.

Staying overnight in a historic house museum, though, is nothing new. Many traditionally had caretakers who lived on site for security and other reasons. Folsom House, operated by the Taylors Falls Historical Society, still carries on that tradition. There may be some others that use a portion of their historic house museum as rental property, which can be a locally sticky issue.

Perhaps what is a new trend is both the transient nature of overnight stays in historic house museums and how common it is becoming. There don't appear to be studies showing the prevalence of this trend, but it can be spotted around the world, including the President Paul Kruger House Museum in Pretoria, South Africa, and 80 National Trust sites in the United Kingdom.

There may be other house museums considering taking this step. Those entrusted with these historic resources would do well to carefully consider risks along side of the potential rewards by having conversations with their tax advisor, local building inspectors, health department officials (if applicable), preservation experts, local residents about their thoughts, internally about how such a proposal fits mission, and with those that currently operate historic house museums with an overnight stay option for the public.

Questions you hope no one will ask

By: grabitsdm | Interpretation | September 29, 2010
This was a session at the AASLH Conference in Oklahoma City last week. The point was that the emotionally charged questions and those questions that require a complex, nuanced answer are precisely the kinds of questions that bring people to visit historical organizations. Although these may make tour guides cringe, these kinds of questions bring out passion and curiosity, and inspire dialog and learning. We ought to embrace these questions, relish the opportunity to discuss them, and welcome people to ask them.

On the horizon, the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 anniversary may prompt some of these kinds of questions.

What questions do you hope no one will ask? What are you doing to prepare docents and tour guides to answer difficult questions?