History organizations choose the impact they want to make. Sometimes the choice is intentional and brought in by a visionary leader or strategic plan, but it can also come about through organizational confidence and maturity. These transitions can occur quickly or over many years, and unlike puberty, there’s no guarantee that an organization won’t return to its previous condition. In my work with dozens of history organizations over the past thirty years, I’ve witnessed three typical turning points that resulted in extraordinary activities and programs.
The first turning point occurs when history organizations practice history. If we are in the “history business,” history should permeate and inspire everything we do. Fifty years ago, historian Barbara Tuchman asserted that, “Being in love with your subject. . .is indispensable for writing good history—or good anything, for that matter.”
How do we know someone is in love? Observe what they say and do. Do they talk about history with feeling and interest? Do they spend time with history actively and joyfully? Does history influence their thinking and do they want to learn more? Now evaluate your organization’s staff, volunteers, and trustees, particularly those in high-level positions–are they passionate about history? Certainly we need skilled attorneys and financial managers, but we also need to sustain and grow the enthusiasm for history. If it’s impossible to find someone who is both a whiz at finances and a history buff, don’t place them in a position where they make strategic decisions about the organization. They will be tempted to do what’s best for the bottom line, not what’s best for the mission. Likewise, a board can’t be filled solely with historians; they need to bring other needed skills to the table.
Practicing history isn’t just collecting objects, verifying facts, and presenting anecdotes about the past. It’s an investigation to answer a question—an “inquiry” which cracks open the etymological nut at the source of the word, “history.” Are your events, exhibits, programs, and publications answering questions that intrigue your visitors and addressing issues in your community? Are your activities producing some thoughtful leaders or only consumers and followers?
Embracing scholarship and original research should be an ordinary part of our work as history institutions. Although the past doesn’t change, our understanding of it does. Bringing a different perspective or question to well-worn sources can result in entirely new revelations, as demonstrated by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s study of a community through a midwife’s mundane diary or Doris Kearns Goodwin’s examination of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency through his everyday relationships with his cabinet members. By working with outside experts, you can assess your public programs to keep them sharp, identify the needs and opportunities for research, and mine your collections to find the significant stories of the ordinary people who worked and lived in your community. Don’t hesitate to ask professors, authors, or curators for help—they welcome the opportunity to work with others who care about their subject and to get an opportunity for a behind-the-scenes peak at the collections.
The award-winning books A Midwife’s Tale and Team of Rivals wouldn’t have been possible without the staff and collections of many state and local libraries, museums, historic sites, and historical societies, so the second step is increasing access to your collections. Historical societies have amazing collections, but much is unknown because inventories and finding aids aren’t available. Cataloguing all those collections to make them intellectually and conveniently accessible is ideal, but often out of reach. Tackle this project methodically by identifying the discreet groups that will be valuable to most researchers, and then process them in ever-deepening levels, starting with a simple description of each group and eventually describing each item. In the meantime, simple resources such as a footnoted timeline, a bibliography of best books and articles, and a guide to sources for your site or community, provide a springboard for researchers studying a topic and using your collections. Today’s digital age has made it much easier to share the collections with much less impact on the organization, so consider sharing frequently requested documents and photographs online, perhaps even your entire catalogue. Indeed, humdrum records contain a “powerful history,” according to Ulrich. “Martha Ballard’s diary forced me to reassess [conventional] history. In some ways, it turned the story upside down.” That mundane midwife’s diary in the Maine State Library also earned her a Pulitzer Prize, Bancroft Prize, and six other national awards.