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Your Local Museum: A Key Non-Internet Knowledge Resource, by Prairie

One of my favorite places to find information on just about everything I may need at TEOTWAWKI [1] is at my local museum.  As a genealogist and museum professional I also have an inside track and know that 90% of all hard copy information about individuals or local communities is not now and probably will never be on the internet.  I am one of four part-time employees at our local county museum and am responsible for all nine computers, printers, our server and web site. 

Technology is a tool that may not always work when I need it and I recognize it as such. As one whose first personal computer (PC) was an IBM 8080 (64k ram, floppies and 10mb hard drive), I have been using PCs since the early 1980s.  Digital information overload and ten different ways of doing the same thing have become the norm.  Today we access social media, blogs, traditional web sites, index sites, images, books, videos and how-to’s, expect every site to work on a smart phone.  Our children teach us technology and we have made Google [2] a verb.  Instant information is expected and for awhile I worried that 4GB of ram may be too little.  My 100GB PC hard drives and 8GB flash drives are much too small for those who think in terms of terabytes. 

My personal addiction to instant information access was recognized and nipped firmly in the bud two years ago.  My smart phone died one cold January morning.  It took eight days and money I didn’t have at the time to purchase a new phone, recover phone numbers, addresses, calendar information and documents.  Some of it was lost in cyberspace forever. 

Since that digital meltdown, I have since made it a habit to be sure everything is backed up.  I sync my phone information often with my PC, and use Evernote [3] and Dropbox [4] and other cloud services.  Even though I use them everyday at work, I have never depended on electronics quite the same way again.  Many days when I am not working, I find it easier to not use them at all.  I also realized I much more prefer the feel of paper and a pen beneath my fingers than a keyboard when I take notes or write about something important.  My thinking is much clearer and I don’t get as distracted. I print out important documents or information on acid free paper and handwrite my daily journal and calendar once again.  

If I were to lose the internet, my computers or smart phone, for an extended period of time, I could still find information I need because I know how to retrieve non-digital information quickly at my local museum.  If you haven’t been to your local museum since elementary school, it is time you went back.  There is no better place to get to know details about your neighborhood, neighbors and community, see historic tools or learn and practice traditional skills.  If you have never been to your local museum, find out where they are, what their hours and policies are and what they have in their collections.

A key thing to know about finding and accessing information from your local museum is figuring out where the nearest one is.  They are usually in a county seat and many of them are called historical societies, with your county’s name preceding historical society in the phone book.  If your historical society is not located in your county seat, the county recorder or chamber of commerce may be able to help you find them.  Your state historical society should also have a list of them on their web site or through their local history outreach coordinator. 

Once you find out where your museum is physically located, you will need to check their hours and days they are open and plan a visit.  Most historical societies that operate museums and historic sites have extremely limited budgets and part-time staff.  Our rural county, of less than 15,000 people, is west of the Mississippi and we enjoy all four seasons.  Our museum is unusual in that we are open year round.  We have historic buildings off-site that like many small museums we only operate seasonally.  Also, unless we have a special event or exhibit opening, we are not open on weekends or in the evenings.  We are open 9-5 Monday to Friday , but several museums in our state are only open from 10-3, 9-3 or noon-5 for two or three days a week.  Some are closed on Mondays or Tuesdays, some are open on Saturday, it depends on their budget, staffing and availability of volunteers.

We have a web site I update at least once a month.  Many societies may not have web sites at all or cannot afford to update them and as stated before, at least 90% of the information in most archives or collections is not on-line.  We are an exception in that many of our key records and inventory records have been digitized, but there are restrictions on the on-line access to our digital collections and most information is only available on-site. Anyone who looks at our web site will see our hours, address and key information about research but will not see entire exhibits, three dimensional views of artifacts or know everything that is in our archive or collection.

You will also need to know if the museum charges for their research time, admission to the exhibit area or other fees.  Most societies also have memberships and a member only newsletter they will mail or email to you when you pay your dues.  It will have their events, special news and information about various research topics and area stories or biographies they have recently worked on. 

Don’t count on the Periodical Source Index (PERSI) to have indexed their newsletter or to have a digital catalog of their collection.  PERSI is on our mailing list, and we have digitized and indexed our newsletters in house, as well as created catalogs and databases but we are not the norm.  To read past issues you will need to either purchase a photo copy, digital file or visit the museum’s archive.  

I strongly encourage you to take the time to visit and spend at least one or two hours the first time you visit in person.  Get a feel for the place and how they operate.
Visit the exhibit galleries and read all the labels, look closely at the photographs and artifacts and ask for a tour of the facility. 

When I give a tour, it usually takes me about six minutes and I quickly walk visitors through the building, upstairs and down, and tell our visitors key facts about the historic building, our county history and that we have over 45,000 photographs, hundreds of journals and scrapbooks, business records and tools, local maps, over 15,000 artifacts (from 1825 to 2011) and point towards various shelves that contain thousands of old fiction and non-fiction books, periodicals and various manuscript collections. 

I always show off our newspaper index card files, and tell them that if they were born, married or die in our county; chances are their name has or will wind up in our card and digital indexes.  I show off the research room and newspaper collection and finally move onto the artifact storage area and let them know our access policies.  Men love our historic tools, military and toy collections.  Women seem to gravitate towards our household, toy and textile collections. 

Before they leave I give each person or family a membership brochure and a newsletter, and if they live in the area, (I always ask where they are from), tell them about our volunteer program and invite them to come back soon.   These six minutes can in no way encompass the collection of individual, county, village and township records and artifacts that our museum is the repository for. 

To find out if our museum has information a certain topic, you will need to ask.  I know our collection and what research resources are available for self guided study.  I know how to check our printed catalogs and databases, and so do several of our volunteers but many will not.   That said, I many times have to contact our long-time members or volunteers on certain topics.  I was not born in my county and have only lived in the state for the past eighteen years.  If I do not know the answer I will try to find it, but many times it isn’t instantly available.  We are not Google and even if we were, remember it probably isn’t available on-line.  Our society also has the policy of charging for my time.  If you want me to help you research a family or topic, it can get pricey if you are not clear on exactly what you are looking for. 

If you have time and really want to know what your resources your local museum has, volunteer your time for various events or to help research.  Our volunteers help us research topics or genealogies in our archive and work with artifacts in our collection room or at our historic sites.   Volunteers greet our guests, give tours and do data entry, indexing or host our programs or historic sites in historic garb, write using inkwells and make ice cream or churn butter with real cream. 

One of my favorite wintertime activities at our museum is when I dress up in my 1862 costume and read to visitors from our oldest local history book.  It took me two weeks and 8 yards of wool to create the costume, and 12 yards of cotton batiste for the petticoats and chemise.  It is very warm and except for the corset it is quite comfortable.  Before I created that costume, I never thought of only having two outfits in my life or having to carry everything I wore in a trunk.  I also had never fully realized the importance of knowing how to make a good French seam with tiny stitches, or that hooks and buttons can be handmade instead of purchased.  In this process, I also learned that our museum had two different types of treadle sewing machines and that both of them were in working order. 

We also utilize volunteers with our ongoing programs for homeschool, 4H [5], scouting and other children of various ages and show them how to play games, use tools or learn skills that were popular before electricity came to our area after rural electrification in the 1930s. Ropemaking and churning butter seem to be two of the most popular work related activities and the wooden articulated toys are always a hit.  Our volunteers also enjoy hosting at our off-site country school events.  One of our key strengths is that we take extra time to figure out what projects our volunteers want to help with.  We ask a lot of questions about what you want to accomplish and learn about while you work. 

Finally, before you travel home, check out the museum gift shop and buy a locally written history book or two about your region or favorite topic.   With very small budgets, book sales and donations are the life’s blood of many museums.

Once you realize how much information on life in your area, traditional crafts and tools is available at your local museum, you will find it much easier to unplug.