Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Historical Societies and Community Heritage

Regardless of the size of the city, town, or rural community you live in there is a good chance your community has a historical society. These societies are often comprised of passionate volunteers who care greatly about the preservation of community history. What role does your local historical society play in the preservation and interpretation of your community’s past? How active is your local historical society? How do historical societies fit amongst heritage institutions such as museums and archives?

One of the great things about historical societies is that membership is often open to anyone. By volunteering with a historical society people looking to gain more experience in the heritage field can participate in fundraising, research, and interpretation projects. Historical societies are also a great place for people who are just generally passionate about history or who would like be more involved in their community. Additionally, anyone one with a professional background in heritage, who is willing to share their expertise, is usually enthusiastically welcomed by historical societies.

The volunteer nature of historical societies is great for the variety of people the societies attract. However, there is a downside to being a volunteer based organization. Without active and committed volunteers local historical societies can easily become inactive and in some cases disband entirely. The problem of the disappearance of historical societies is particularly troublesome when a historical society has acted as a collector of community history. What happens to a photo collection or archival collection held by a historical society when there is no longer a group of dedicated volunteers to maintain the collection? Good historical societies have plans in place to deal with this possibility. These plans may include donating the material to a local heritage institution or appointing a knowledge community member to act as curator of the collection. Regardless of how vibrant a historical society is currently, the volunteer nature of most historical societies makes it essential that plans are created to ensure to the longevity of any holdings the historical society maintains.

Historical societies play an important role in increasing public awareness of local heritage. Many historical societies run genealogy workshops, walking tours, lecture series, and in some cases play an active role in heritage preservation initiatives. In addition to their role as promoters and educators of local history, some historical societies have taken on a role of collecting community histories. In some cases this is done in terms of collecting oral histories, preserving photo collections, or working in tandem with local heritage institutions. Examples of historical societies acting as collectors of community history include: the Guelph Historical Society which maintains its own archival collection, and the Milton Historical Society which has partnered with various libraries and other historical societies to digitize their photo collection. Both of these historical societies are active in their respective communities and have made an effort to increase accessibility to their collections.

1 comment:

MELISSA MANNON said...

The challenge for historical societies is to balance the sense of openness and appreciation for volunteer contributions with an equal sense of professionalism. Volunteers can indeed run historical societies in a professional manner, but as you rightly state, relying on volunteers can put the institution in a precarious position. At the very least, strong policies should be implemented to ensure the continuity of the organization and its functions under any circumstances. At best, these should be created by paid staff with the knowledge and expertise to lead unpaid volunteers willing to learn and support long term goals.

Historical societies often hold resources that are unique, irreplaceable and representative of communities. These materials are often as vital to a larger history and as valuable for historical research as materials held in major repositories. Professionals, even those in neighboring repositories not directly connected to the historical society, would do well to take this into account and offer support however they can.