Every family collects objects from their lives. Objects that make work easier. Objects to meet needs. Objects to satisfy wants. Objects that evoke memories. They have meaning as they represent the collective history of a family.
Just as a family keeps these objects in a home, a community keeps its meaningful historical objects in archives and libraries, or often, in historical societies.
What is a Historical Society?
A historical society is like the town’s attic, begging for some curious soul to lower the ladder and clamber up into. Historical societies collect and care for objects from the local community, especially those with historical significance. These artifacts include documents, household items, keepsakes, and tools. When students learn about these objects, they get a glimpse of how people lived and what they valued. This is a local, and often free, opportunity to bring history to life.
For example, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs of the 1930s may not have real meaning to students today. But your local historical society may have newspaper articles, photographs, or actual tools from the Works Progress Administration.
Historical society members may even be able to tell your students what was built in the town by the WPA. Was it a school, community building or highway? Was the local park created by the Civilian Conservation Corps? Even the trees that line the old highways could be a result of New Deal projects.
As students see examples of history right in their own town, those “book facts” actually start to have meaning and relevance.
How to Use Your Local Historical Society
- Check with local community or county offices for information. Do a web search for your city or state to find what is available in the area. Or search on this nationwide Directory.
- When contacting an organization, identify yourself as an educator looking for resources available to students. Ask if the society offers visiting hours, or special programs.
- Most rural historical societies are staffed by volunteers, so be sure to inquire about their flexibility in accommodating students.
- Larger urban centers will have an organized staff in their organization, and you can often search their inventory through their website.
- Many states have their own museums and historical organizations with an education department. Contact that department to determine how your students can best access available resources. Often they will have digital exhibits that can be used in a classroom. Some even offer virtual field trips.
The History of Historical Societies
People began founding historical societies shortly after the country’s birth in 1776. Many formed after the Civil War when veterans and their families wanted to share their mementos with the next generation. As amateur historians, these families focused on patriotism, the country’s growth, and creating a legacy for the future. Thus, local historical societies became places to store personal items for the next generation to explore.
These possessions are still waiting to be rediscovered by today’s students. So check out your local historical society where students can engage in service, delve into primary documents, and become fascinated with history.
Explore history with Sally Flaherty as she explains the Secret Lives of Objects