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.
These are broad questions and asked only as it is good to occasionally reflect on what we as a community are doing well and what else might be needed. The discussion that follows hopefully will be about what is done now and what is wished for in the future. I think anyone involved with local history knows how stretched volunteers and staff are, so we shouldn't feel a need to restate that. Instead, I'd like to get a sense of where we as a local history community are, and what kinds of technology might be coming that could be used to good advantage marketing our services and making history more accessible. In order to do that, I will invite the many I know that read this blog but have not commented to share your thoughts. You are observers and users of technology, your thoughts will be important to shaping this discussion.
There's a lot to be said for putting programming where people are bound to be. For example, if most people drive a car to work, how might you reach commuters? By now many in Minnesota's local history community have probably noticed changes in travel patterns. Can you provide a specific example to show how your organization is placing programming where people are bound to encounter it?
My question is: what types of programming do other organizations offer? Are they well attended? Do you offer these programs (youth or adult) year round or just seasonally? What ideas have you tried in the past that did not pan out?
If you have something to discuss with Minnesota's local historical organizations about the profession, standards, best practices, and more, send your blog to David Grabitske or Melinda Hutchinson. They will work with you to post for you. Remember, the blog is brought to you by the Minnesota Historical Society, so there will be just a couple guidelines to follow for webwriting. And, this blog will not post advertisements or solicitations. Sharpen your electronic pencils and send in your questions. Your colleagues look forward to hearing from you.
However, these records are often the most endangered in the state. Many local historical museums report finding township records in haymows, under kitchen sinks, buried in the back of closets, in remote township halls subject to arson, and even sent to the dump. The large number of records would require much work for one organization to preserve them all. Therefore, several local historical organizations are helping to preserve township records.
The Renville County Historical Society in Morton has undertaken a project that could serve as a model to many organizations. It applied for and received a grant from the Minnesota State Grants-in-Aid program for the first phase of a project to microfilm all township records in the county through the year 2000. This way the information contained in the township records will be available to the public during regular hours in its research library. RCHS followed the example of the Milaca Area Historical Society that microfilmed several township record sets in its area. When RCHS is complete, it may be the first county with a complete set of microfilm records for its townships.
Another way that local history museums have preserved township records is to enter into an agreement with the State Archives to be the repository for local government records. For more information about these agreements, contact Charlie Rodgers at the State Archives.
In what ways are you working with township supervisors to promote the preservation of their official records?
Admittedly, the federal grant application process has gotten infinitely more complicated, and the MFA guidelines are not written very clearly. But I do think that it is possible that small museums have all kinds of projects, the money for which they could apply. I would love to know how many people have looked at the MFA guidelines, and what the bars are to them applying. Â And what is up with no MAP grants being given in Minnesota this year? Has everyone had one?
For my part, I hate to see so many institutions getting the maximum, when that money could have so much more impact if it was just spread around a little bit more.
One result is that an invaluable source of historical data is now, potentially, available to the public in any number of research libraries. Alexander Ramsey, in his first address to the Territorial Legislature in 1849, called newspapers the "daybooks of history." Editors of local newspapers are often among the most mindful of historical significance in recording events as they happen, and now are looking at the long term preservation of their meticulously recorded photograph files.
However, these donations do not come without a number of issues. First, these files can be extensive. Time spent, most often by volunteers, is a cost as whoever is tasked with processing the collection could have spent time on any number of equally important projects. The temptation can be to just let the photographs sit, but the longer the collection goes unprocessed the longer it remains unaccessible to public. The volume of these files can also cost the organization in terms of storage materials it needs to house them properly. And, for those thinking of digitization, volume will play a role in the cost for that as well.
Second, in file photos there are often variations on images of the same event and only one of those photos actually made it into print. While it might be ideal to save them all, storage space atÂ local history museums is often at a premium. Considerations sometimes have to be made for weeding out less useful iterations that the newspaper originally retained.
Third, hopefully when the newspaper paid for its photos, it also received copyright, which it then transferred to the historical organization. Without copyright, local historical organizations may become custodians for a collection it cannot really use. That too may weigh on the decision to catalog it, but then either an unusable collection or an uncataloged collection will only consume space without further the mission of the repository.
Last, while the contents of the photo may be described in the newspaper, often times only small clues are included on the physical photograph. This too is a barrier, though not insurmountable, to effective cataloging.
There are probably a number of other issues, but these four seem to be among the more common currently experienced by Minnesota's local historical organizations.
If your organization has large newspaper photo files, what is your experience? How have you addressed these issues?
Have we been using the right model all along? Is it just our methods that need to be revised? How do you connect with your individual community and walk the fine line between catering to specific needs and not re-inventing the wheel?