Historical Resources at Risk: The Case of the State Historical Society of Iowa

In recent weeks, the State Historical Society of Iowa has been faced with reorganization and funding cuts, which threaten to reduce access to its irreplaceable collections and to displace staff who have dedicated their careers to helping Iowans learn about their past. Plenty of folks have written about the specifics of the situation (the petition link includes links to many helpful sources to educate yourself), but what I want to focus on is my experience with SHSI, and why that experience makes me believe absolutely in the importance of keeping this organization funded and its records accessible [1].

I was lucky enough to work at SHSI at the start of my Master’s program, and it was one of the most valuable and enjoyable jobs I’ve had. I started volunteering there when I decided I would apply to the Library and Information Studies program, and later came on as a work-study employee after I was accepted. I bounced around to do a few different things at the Iowa City branch, including some cataloging, preservation/conservation, and special collections (one of my first assignments was working with Civil War and World War I diaries from Iowa veterans, which was challenging and lots of fun). I got to learn about some awesome Iowans through the records they left behind, and their stories are the ones I turn to again and again when I talk with others about the value of preserving history.

My historical research background and my work in special collections have both taught me that by and large, our history is shaped by the voices found in places like SHSI. Well-known, powerful figures might have an impact in a specific moment or in a specific way, but by and large, history is created by people like you and me, who engage in the billions of small acts each day that shape our world. We can think about this in parallel to our individual lives: My decision to get a PhD put me on a certain path and impacted the course of my life in a significant way, but there are hundreds of small decisions that can add up to change that path as well (and hundreds that make up the real bulk of my days, whether or not they directly relate to that one aspect of my life).

Sometimes those small acts have a big impact, like Ellen Mather, who brought professors from Iowa City to her home in nearby West Branch so that the community could have additional opportunities to learn, or her daughters, who saved scraps of fabric from different dresses and household items, to give the people who read their family papers a tangible connection to history (seriously, if you haven’t seen that scrapbook, you should. It’s pretty neat!) Sometimes, the stories held in SHSI tell of ordinary people whose made the decision to do something courageous, like the members of the Savage and Lewelling families in Salem, Iowa, who were a part of the Underground Railroad. The Lewelling Quaker Museum is the former Lewelling home and can still be visited in Salem, where you can learn about the time the family refused to turn over escaped slaves to the slaveholder who threatened their house by pointing a cannon at it.

I wouldn’t have learned about these families without SHSI there to save and share their stories. SHSI is a special place, because it combines a lot of the things I love about special collections librarianship. Working there gave me the chance to deeply engage with incredible materials that I wouldn’t have encountered anywhere else. It gave me the chance to work with great people and to bounce between some different departments to learn about all the ways we preserve and protect materials (for example, helping with preservation and conservation one day, and making finding aids the next).
But I also saw the impact of the work everyone was doing: How our reference work helped researchers find that one missing piece for their project, and how SHSI’s programs helped educate children and adults (I love special collections, but I also love teaching too, so combining the two is always a win in my book!)
Plenty of people can agree that the materials should be preserved, but one thing we sometimes overlook is that the people at cultural heritage organizations are equally valuable. Without them, who will help you find that one reference in an obscure letter you didn’t know existed? Who else will dedicate their lives to connecting people and materials, and funnel that devotion into exciting and ever-changing programs to teach people about their history? Who else can identify figures like the Mather family, and share those stories with people who might be inspired to make changes in their communities?

When I worked at SHSI, I remember there being threats of budget cuts, and me going in to the stacks one day and looking at the boxes of family papers I had been working with, and feeling so helpless to save the priceless stories they contain. Now I’m in Florida, getting ready to graduate, and looking for another library to call home, and I still feel helpless to save the records that taught me so much about the field I love. I signed the petition, and will be writing to Iowa’s elected officials, and hope you’ll consider doing the same. After all, if we won’t save our history and that of those who came before us, how can we expect anyone else to?

[1] As with anything, I don’t fully disagree with every recommendation–digitization of records, for example, is great for providing access to information for those who live far away (like me!) However, using digitization as a one-size-fits-all solution for cultural heritage doesn’t work either. Tangible records are important for a variety of reasons, as are the people who work with those records who can help interpret, synthesize, and share information in meaningful ways.


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