If you walk into your community Historical Society or Museum, you’ll likely find it staffed by retirees – volunteer footsoldiers defending the ramparts of local history against the dual assaults of time and indifference.
Local historical establishments are typically underfunded, even neglected, especially in times of economic distress. In my community, the museum lost its modest ($35,000) annual grant from the city when the city went bankrupt. The single paid (and very modestly at that) professional Museum Director has to divide his time and energy between what he’s there for – preserving and displaying local history – and the much more onerous task of raising funds. His volunteer Board and staff struggle doggedly, enthusiastically, to keep the place open. Our local Historical Society fell on hard times several years ago as the original organizers aged and died off – and were not replaced. Its current president, a young woman degreed in history, volunteering her time and energy, has virtually single-handedly brought the organization back to life. At the same time, again almost single-handedly, she recently snatched a local structure from the jaws of developers who would have destroyed an architectural and historical treasure. The County Historical Collection (it doesn’t have official “archives” status despite its being a repository of county governmental and court records reaching back to the County’s establishment in the 1850s) is managed by a trained archivist who works at least forty hours a week – as a volunteer. The County budget to operate the place (aside from power and light) – $3500 a year – was just cut to zero. The archivist is now contemplating setting up a 501(c)(3) charity to fund her operations because she fears that without any money, and without official status, the records she and her volunteer crew access, catalog, restore and preserve, could end up in the dumps, where, at one time in recent past, they were consigned.
Could this be the situation in your locale? What to do? First, of course, is to learn about your local historical establishments – simply become aware of their existence. Then, you can begin to learn about their status and their needs. Once you understand their situation, you likely will want to help by writing a generous check every year, by becoming part of the volunteer staff, or even serving on the Board of Directors where you will play a key role in raising funds. I guarantee this: you, your energy and your expertise will be welcomed, warmly. Double this if you bring skills and knowledge as an historian or an archivist!
Once you’re “hooked” you can help raise consciousness of local history (and of those that are “doing” it) to the larger community. For instance, as President-elect of my Rotary Club, I just sponsored a “History Month” by inviting the above-mentioned Museum Director, Historical Society President, the County Archivist, and the president of a local historical foundation to speak at our weekly meetings. Many of my fellow Rotarians – community leaders and opinion influencers all – came to me during this series to declare that they had been completely unaware of the activities, even the existence, of some of the organizations we highlighted.
Think about this: you could even take a “local history status report” on the road. Service Clubs, Chambers of Commerce, PTAs all have vital interest in local cultural and educational resources. They also are always on the lookout for good speakers! The whole idea: get people informed, interested and involved in their history.
So, in 2012, make yourself into a leader in the battle against the assaults of time and indifference upon our history.
©2012 Thomas L Snyder