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.

Relevancy and Local History

I work with local history collections on a daily basis and I am constantly surprised by the gems held by small museums and libraries. Over the past eight months some of the more interesting bits of history I have come across include: wartime ration cards, an agricultural society minute book from 1905, land allotment maps, and numerous interesting photographs.

In addition to these visually appealing items I have had the opportunity to be exposed to dozens of local history texts. Many of these local histories were written in celebration of a centennial, or other significant anniversary and are often written by a local community group or a group of volunteers. The quality of writing and research varies greatly from book to book, and very few provide footnotes or bibliographies. Is this a bad thing? From a research perspective it is a shame that more local histories do not include at least a basic bibliography, be it a list of local persons consulted or a more traditional bibliography. The inclusion of sources has the potential to aid later scholarship and is valuable to know in itself.

The academic historian in me does occasionally get the urge to scoff at histories written by enthusiastic community members. However, despite some research shortcomings local history texts are an important resource and are essential for preserving local heritage. Many are well written, compiled by people who are very passionate about their organization or community, and provide a unique look into a community from an ‘insiders’ persepctive.

Much local history is passed down orally. The nature of oral history leaves local history open to the pitfalls of human memory. Writing local history down helps counteract this pitfall. Additionally, many local history collections are filled with unidentifiable photographs, written history has the potential to provide context to images and assist in creating a fuller history.

Why should anyone care about the history of a small rural community? Small communities often have rich and vibrant pasts. Looking at the history of a small community can often illuminate the way in which society, industry, and social interests have evolved over time. Local history can act as a microcosm for examining larger issues such as the impact of industrialization or the link between community growth and the introduction of railroads.

Working with local history collections on a daily basis has reminded me of the importance of ‘amateur’ history in preserving the history of small communities. It has also made me very appreciative of local residents who help heritage institutions identify photographs and share their stories about the community. Community engagement is essential for local history and it makes me happy to see how many people are genuinely interested in local history initiatives.

Collaborative Photo Encyclopedia

Fotopedia is a collaborative open source photo encyclopedia. The site is an interesting blend of the knowledge of Wikipedia combined with the expansive array of image of flickr. The emphasis is more on the side of the photos, however each collection of photos is accompanied by a brief encyclopedia article. The number of photos and quality of photos for each entry is all dependent on what has been uploaded.

One the more valuable features of Fotopedia is that the site is easily searchable by categories. These categories allow users who are interested in a particular type of photo to easily find the images they desire. The category feature can be particular useful for anyone researching a specific topic. The site is also keyword searchable. However, the keyword search results are not always as neatly organized as the rest of the site.

Fotopedia also hosts a “Fotopedia Community” designed to allow interaction between users. This social media feature allows photos to be commented on, voted on, highlights best contributors, and a variety of other interactive features. This site has great potential for sharing photos, geocaching, and providing context to photos that may otherwise be merely a picture.

The Flexibility of a Definition.

This past weekend I attended an Active History conference in Toronto. The conference focused largely on the variety of ways in which academic and community historians interact with the general public and attempt to employ history in ways which actively engage audiences.

I think one of the most significant ideas I took away from the conference was the notion of flexibility. I am beginning to think that for an understanding, appreciation and a career in Public History flexibility is essential. The Active History conference featured many presentations by traditional academic historians whose work had brought them out of the ivory tower into the realm of Public History. The conference also featured a number of presentations by people who may not be considered “true historians” by traditional academic standards. This juxtaposition of academic and community historians helped me expand my definition of what a historian is. A historian does not necessarily have to have spent a good portion of their life in the academy, rather they may be participating, learning and researching history from a grassroots level.

One of the most surprising aspects of the entire conference was the lack of conversation about the use of digital technology to enhance active participation. Digital technology was discussed by a few of the presenters but it did not receive its own panel or resonate as a general concern amongst participants. I understand that a lot of volunteer based organizations and underfunded historical projects may not have a great deal of money to fund some of the more complex digital technology avaliable. However, there is a number of open-source programs which could be used to enhance historical websites or even the technology used at specific facilities. Many of the presenters at the conference were very flexible in their outlooks and were creative in coming up with ideas of how to engage the public. Yet, many did not apply this creative thinking in a digital way, which would (in my mind) allow for an increased public engagement and accessibility of historical information. Perhaps it all comes down to a lack of knowledge about the digital resources which are avaliable to them and a lack of training in how to use technology in a historical setting.

Overall, I found the conference to be an insightful look into a variety of avenues of Public History which I had not given an immense amount of thought to prior to the conference. The conference also gave me a lot to think about regarding the ways in which the “profession” of public history can be both professional and very far from the traditional professional ideal.