Back to the Past

By Megan Smeznik
Local History and Technology

In the cult classic films, Back to the Future, Marty McFly travels back through the future and the past with fantastic gadgets that have the power to change the timeline of history. However, as we sit here at our computer screens in 2015, not everyone has been able to embrace the new technologies that have graced the 21st century. From rural communities to low income-school districts, those disadvantaged by technology and digital literacy are near and wide. Local historical societies are just one of the countless groups that have been “left behind” in new technologies.

A recent comment suggested to me pointed out that local historical societies are part of a technology gap that has not been addressed. Moreover, these groups do not realize how to utilize technology or are even perhaps scared of it. Is this true for every historical society? Has technology become the enemy or has fear of change entered this equation as well? It is with my hope that this post will demonstrate that there are groups out there trying to address the technology gap and that whether big or small technologies local historical societies can embrace them.

When someone mentions a local historical society to you, what images pop into your head? Dusty, old display cases with tacked on information about the pieces? Perhaps the image of the retiree who is a budding historian giving lectures about every object in the room comes to mind. Whatever the image may be, local historical societies have maintained a long pedigree as antiquarian institutions. These institutions, for lack of a better phrase, are “stuck in the past.” For volunteers and staff, these ideals have complicated the relationship that local historical societies have had with technological advances.

Technology has not been the friend of the local historical society. Instead it is often viewed as the enemy encroaching on its territory. Pew Research has done a number of studies on the impact of technology and cultural institutions. If we look at one of these studies from 2013, Pew Research finds that looking at social media more adults are likely to visit a museum if they can connect with them on social media. In fact, from the group they surveyed 35% of all the adults had visited a museum in the past 12 months. But those that were connected to a museum through social media more than doubled to 82%. You may be wondering so what? This is just one study but we can take this a step further. These numbers suggest and as other studies done by groups like the American Alliance of Museums have suggested emerging technologies are necessary for museums to embrace. However, whether it is the refusal to change or the lack of means to do so, this has had a major impact on the reach and undertakings of local historical societies.

While one can emphatically point out all the negative and seemingly impossible reasons why local historical societies are not connected to technology resources, I would like to argue on the other end. Yes, there is still a great deal that needs to be done but there are a number of local historical societies that have learned to flourish in this fast paced changing environment. Technology challenges the idea of business as usual and that is a good thing. For one, the American State and Local History’s StEPs is one of the resources that is trying to help organizations to plan for the future. Yes, that future does include technology. Here in Ohio, the Ohio History Service Corps managed by the Ohio History Connection is one of the many groups trying to provide organizations assistance in this ever changing landscape. Moreover, technology can simply be embraced by setting up a Facebook or Twitter account. Technology does not always have to be big or flashy but it can extend your organization beyond its boundaries of a building.

I do not believe that local historical societies are incapable of understanding technology and its trends. I disagree with the comment put forward that this information is not relevant nor is it understandable to leaders in local historical societies. Through networking and by engaging with various populations, local historical societies can grow and connect with diverse audiences. I would even state that the future of local historical societies depends on their leaders and others to adapt to the current trends to keep moving forward. While this may take time to do so, local historical societies do have the capability to utilize resources to be able to use technology to move forward. I have only touched on a few in this post and there are countless others to be explored. Hopefully the few links at the end of this post may provide some insight into these complex issues. Things take time! We must be patient and help each other to grow.

Resources Utilized:

Megan Smeznik is currently contracting with the Ohio Local History Alliance to improve their technology presence and is a museum educator for Hale Farm and Village.

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