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.
At this point, I am continuing to maintain paper records like they started in 1966, but my volunteers are wondering if it is worth it and want to know what everyone else is doing. :-)
Pope County Historical Society
Even in better times local historical organizations can struggle to find compelling ways to express the urgency and importance of what they do in order encourage strong giving.
There are a number of ongoing projects to develop data sets that can be used as benchmarking tools for historical organizations, sometimes within a broader scope of arts and cultural heritage. However, the field has traditionally encouraged organizations to benchmark their progress against themselves, rather than compare to other organizations. Thus these projects seek the ability to compare across institutions.
To get money, many organizations first need to prove that they are responsible stewards of the money they already have. Technical Development Corporation's paper Getting Beyond Breakeven shows some of the financial ways in which a cultural nonprofit can lay the groundwork for sustainability. One must be careful, though, with this report not to extend capitalization to the collections held in public trust.
Other financial studies have looked at specific kinds of financial support. For example, The Center for Effective Philanthropy studied General Operating Support (GOS). It found that while GOS is the single most desired kind of funding, GOS seems to work best when it is "at least six figures and multi-year." Since funders typically do not tend to grant multi-year commitments, and $100,000 or more per year is a lot money, GOS probably won't be a priority for many providers.
Others seek to delve deeper, beyond just the need for money to show the worth of investment. The Pew Charitable Trust's Cultural Data Project is a "powerful online management tool designed to strengthen arts and cultural organizations." Seemingly, though, CDP's focus is on arts organizations that are similar in some ways to history organizations, but that perhaps do not match historical organizations as closely as some would prefer.
The Institute of Museums and Library Services began a Museum Data Collection project with a report in 2005. The focus of this is tends to be on much larger museums in more regional centers. Thus the Mid-America Arts Alliance undertook a six-state study (which included historical organizations) in its report, Hidden Assets: Research on Small Museums. This report acknowledges, "Small, rural museums fill an important role in their communities. They often are the only cultural assets in their towns, but despite this role, they tend to lack the resources to sustain or improve their facilities, operations, and collections."
So this drive to find key indicators of success that should inspire stronger giving is nothing very new, but the many efforts seem to have hard to compare findings.
After looking at these various studies, there are four concerns that come to mind:
- None of the studies really make a compelling argument as to why data should be collected in the first place, beyond generic statements like "we should" or "we need to be prepared for the future" or something similar. There are no case studies to show that data has made a cultural nonprofit more stable.
- Relationships Matter. None of the studies discuss the importance of maintaining a proper balance between the inherent advantages of being nonprofit and emerging business practices. Also, none of the reports look beyond business to find commonalities with other kinds of cultural institutions.
- Since nonprofits are mission driven enterprises, and if data is to support arguments about the effectiveness of those missions, these mission statements need to be revised in such a way that the public can instantly understand qualitative outcomes based on metrics.
- Lastly, with nonprofits examining themselves to develop data sets, it seems as though perhaps the field should develop experts that would be able to objectively look at readings to interpret the data, similar to the reason we all see a doctor about our more serious medical conditions as they arise.
Key indicators of success probably would need to show relationship between income and fixed costs, engagement of supporters, rate at which new ideas are acquired, strength of the diversity of income, and relationship of the organization's product to its self-defined service area.
What kinds of data would be the most useful to you to inspire supporters to give, and why? Is it appropriate to change the field from one organization measuring against itself to making broader comparisons? Are there an inherent problems with this kind of effort that could deprive organizations of funding?
Watonwan County Historical Society in Madelia inspired generous support to complete this addition in 2004.
As is often said, the actions of a few museums color the way the public perceives all museums. The reaction can take various forms, from harmless opinions to legislative corrections suddenly deemed necessary. This is unfortunate, and perhaps the most effective step the history museum community in Minnesota can be to help refocus the message onto more productive lines of public discourse.
The Wall Street Journal of December 21, 2010, carried the article by Clare Ansberry, "For Jimmy Stewart Museum, a Not-So-Wonderful Plight." The story is familar: lots of initial enthusiasm for a museum, followed by solid attendance that slowly has been eroding, and now a story about the museum's budget and potentially bleak future.
Closer to home, the Pioneer Press of January 1, 2011, carried an article about the Serbian Cultural and History Center in South St. Paul, with much the same story of adversity mixed with urgency by Nick Farraro.
The message in both stories seems to be that certain segments of history are unimportant because too few care. That sentiment easily transfers to a broader pool of history organizations when that little yeast works its way through the rest of the batter.
While stories of adversity can inspire us to apply lessons in our own circumstances, and urgency can prompt action, both of these stories lack compelling reasons for the history museum to continue in the first place. I know there must be compelling reasons to continue, but neither story mentions what those reasons are. The stories spread further yeast to historical museums in general through fairly typically proposed "solutions" to money woes, namely writing grants, wedding rentals, resource for educational groups, or selling reproductions or even collections themselves (which is unethical).
Even when newspaper articles and other media attempt to characterize compelling reasons to support a history museum, how often is it not that the museum believes that it is out of space to store history? Surely history and the need to preserve it is more compelling than "we are out of space."
Many at Minnesota history museums, however, have had success describing compelling need and have been recognized with national awards for finding practical and yet innovative solutions to prioritized needs. The Winona County Historical Society raised over $4.5 million in a very tough economic climate. Many other historical organizations have found financial resources recently as well, and for the very reason they articulated specific compelling reasons for merit that support.
Two questions: 1) How can we as a history museum community refocus the messages about our museums to something more productive? and, 2) What examples could you share from your experience?
If people do not live near historic resources most become unfamiliar with the importance of these historic places. In a sense, depopulation is contributing to the challenges for preserving significant resources.
Could there ever be too many people living near historic resources? The Guardian News for Friday December 3, 2010, shows that too many people can also be a problem. "Italy's Abundance of Heritage Sites Leads to Indifference" shows that when there are a great many sites interspersed with a large population, the loss or deterioration of historic places is not seen as a call to action.
In America, the call to action in terms of rural resources at the National Trust for Historic Preservation seems be to blunt rapid development of areas adjacent to urban cities, resorts, and other popular destinations. The Trust's Preserving America's Rural Heritage intersects with population issues, but seems more focused on inducing visits through Heritage Tourism rather than figuring out how to help people to learn to live in those wonderful environments.
When I worked at the Sibley Historic Site in Mendota in the late 1990s, a study suggested that capacity for the Sibley House was about 7,000 people per year. More than that might love the resource to death. Beyond even this study focuses on visitation. I am unaware of any broad study of what the population density capacity near a historic resources is in general.
In a sense, to preserve historic resources, they need to be legible to people. If the resources are not seen on a daily basis, or as common as trees in a forest, it is hard for the resources to be seen.
The Guardian's story along with obvious threats to historic resources in Minnesota due to centralizing forces that encourage rural depopulation show that as in a great many things, balance is critical.
Perhaps it is time to undertake a study of population densities around historic resources to determine if there is an optimum level, and if so what that might be.
There is a deep desire to be social. There is a deep and sometimes urgent desire to raise cash. There is a deep desire to eat ice cream. The ice cream social for over a century has, more or less successfully, has attempted to fulfill all those desires in one amazing event.
Ice cream, if you pardon the pun, was a hot commodity in the beginning of the 19th century as commercial Ice Cream Gardens appeared around America and England and offered a variety of sweet treats in a garden like setting and some even offered music. These gardens gave way to Ice Cream Socials as the cost of ice cream became less expensive and churches duplicated the ice cream gardens to use them as fundraising events.
No one back then called it an “Old Fashioned" Ice Cream Social. Ice Cream Socials in the good-ol'-days were innovative - marketing genius. I am unsure just when the words "Old Fashioned" were regularly added to "Ice Cream Social", probably when it ceased to be innovative.
However, ice cream socials as mentioned at the beginning, if done correctly could satisfy a community's social, monetary and sweet tooth needs. Note that Ice Cream Socials far out numbered Brussels Sprout Socials, Broccoli Socials and Castor Oil Socials combined. Something about a sweet treat just spells out success and a guaranteed ability to attract people (Lutefisk Socials however have always been a mystery to me).
An ice cream social was an easy if not tasty way for the community to show its support.
But an ice cream social was indeed a "social" event too not just a way to raise cash. Otherwise ice cream without the social is simply as fundraising oriented as selling Girl Scout Cookies or Fuller Brushes. "Social" provides a chance for the organizations members to come together and "Ice Cream" provides the key ingredient.
I know organizations where they actually loose money on the Ice Cream Social and still consider it a success. That is what is called a loss leader. You loose money on the event/product but gain it back in sales of another product or increased memberships or simply in the difficult to monetize - strengthen of community bonds. In military terms - you may loose a battle but win the war.
In building an organizations presence on Facebook, folks could learn a thing or two from ice cream socials.
Provide real content: It is not good enough to say you're having an ice cream social only to surprise them by making them sit through a two hour long seminar on the legacy value of leaving your organization in their will when they do their estate planning before they can get their miserable little scoop of ice cream and yet amazingly that is what organizations do when all they do is use Facebook like a press release feed. Content is king with social media and historical societies and museums often lucky enough to have an embarrassing amount of content. You want to lead them back to your web site. Social networking does not work until you start producing things on your web site that people want to go to.
Provide a sweet treat: It is one thing to get someone to "Like" you it is another thing to balance your posts so they don't "Unlike" you or even worse simply "Hide" you from their news feed. So what you provide not only has to be original content but the content you provide has to be relevant to your audience. But what is relevant? Relevant does not necessary mean good for you. Remember, Ice Cream Socials are way more popular than Brussel Sprout Socials. So it is content that is simple, tastes good, easy to eat, fun and appeal to a wide audience.
I am not saying that you should not go ahead and post your organization's fifty events at once or post your research article Effects of the Disappearance of the Rocky Mountain Locust on Biodynamic corn Production in the late 19th Century American Midwest, just that the Facebook "News Feed" that appears when you log in posts does not list the most recent posts. Instead it is a complicated algorithm that aggregates posts Facebook thinks you will find most desirable based on things like the popularity of the post - or of posts similar to it; Do your friends like the post?; Have you "Liked" a post from that organization before?; How many times has your organization posted in the last hour, etc, etc...
That is why it is important to space out your event postings and why things like "Object of the Day", "Guess this Object", "Then & Now", This Day in History and. They are easy to view and easy to "Like"
Be Social: I have never heard of an "Ice Cream Business Networking" event. An Ice Cream Social may not be the best time to pass out business cards and it simply may wind up annoying any potential customers, it is a time to kick back, relax and get to know your community through ice cream.
As with social media, now is not the time to put on your professional face. Carefully crated posts in the Chicago Manual of Style may win the hearts of traditional media for your press releases, but frankly it is dull, formulaic and frankly now is chance to give your brand a little personality. Many of the social media sites are a chance to get to know your followers (admirers).
What are you doing to build community on Facebook and other social media sites? Are you really engaging? What are you doing right that others can learn from? What do you find most difficult in building and engaging with your community?
Indeed, libraries and historical organizations have a lot in common, and the two can often learn much from one another particularly as both struggle to address public expectation of instant online access. However, sometimes the rush toward this natural comparison fails to make distinctions between the two in sum.
The article cited above offers insight on one difference. Most local historical organizations' budgets should not be affected by rising cost in scholarly journals, which is a distinct difference with libraries. The story highlights the rising cost of publishing journals, specifically scientific periodicals, at the same time of diminishing government resources.
Of course, the article points out that the United Kingdom's situation is different than in the United States. And, some historical organizations, particularly larger ones, do purchase scholarly journal subscriptions. Still other local historical organizations purchase subscriptions to certain library services, such as Ancestry.com, but how many subscribe to JSTOR?
Perhaps this story suggests that one pressure libraries may feel is not one that will affect local history research libraries. Agree? Why or why not? Or, is this another case of smaller is more likely to survive? In what other ways do you perceive that local history organizations are distinct from libraries?
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
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?
- Fillmore County Historical Society
- Cokato Historical Society
- Morrison County Historical Society
- Martin County Historical Society
- Edina Historical Society
- Otter Tail County Historical Society
- Clay County Historical Society
- Lake County Historical Society
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.
There are some common themes on what the organizations were looking for when building or redesigning a web site.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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?
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.
Lake County Historical Society