When Steve McLoughlin’s time as president of the Whitehall Historical Society ran out, Bill Flood was there to take over. When Flood’s term ended, Leo Knoblauch stepped into the role.
It’s a standard process of succession known well by local historical societies. But some say “passing the torch,” as Flood called it, is getting harder, and they worry about its implications.
“A lot of times they’re the only ones preserving the history of a community,” said Todd McCormick, president of the Ohio Local History Alliance’s board of trustees. “Local history is also Ohio history and American history. If it goes away, sometimes it can’t come back.”
It’s not that historical societies have ever had it easy — securing funding and volunteers have always been challenges at some level, McCormick said. But many organizations are struggling to recruit new, younger members, and some longtime members are aging and no longer able to contribute like they once did.
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Because each organization’s characteristics are as distinct as the histories of their communities, the specifics of their challenges vary. Some groups have hundreds of paying members. Others have endowments that supplement operating costs or receive more grants or funding from their city government than some.
Many are all-volunteer. Others, such as the Worthington Historical Society, have a paid director. And a handful have multiple historic buildings creating their own kind of village, as the Southwest Franklin County Historical Society and Hilliard Historical Society do.
But many of the complications confronting the different organizations stem from the same place: a changing lifestyle.
“Whereas people maybe want to attend lectures to learn about their neighborhood, historical societies are competing with all sorts of entertainment and restaurants and sporting events,” said Kate LaLonde, director of the Worthington Historical Society. “We have to rethink, how do people want to use their time now?”
Organizations are doing just that. The Worthington Historical Society, for example, has put on ghost tours around Halloween for the last few years. Despite rain, about 100 people attended this year, LaLonde said.
The Whitehall Historical Society has organized antique shows with food trucks in the parking lot of its museum, which is a Lustron prefabricated, enameled steel house from the 1950s — a nod to the city’s post-World War II boom.
The hope is that events that appeal to a broader audience over time will inspire attendees to remain involved with the historical society, LaLonde said.
Barbara Cash, president of the Hilliard Historical Society, said her group has started looking for volunteers in new ways, such as partnering with a high school history club to help archive items that the group has collected in recent years but has struggled to catalog.
The Dublin Historical Society hopes to hire an intern from Ohio State next year to help research ways to modernize its museum for a more hands-on, interactive experience, society President Tom Holton said.
The digital age has brought both barriers and opportunities. While new technology creates the possibility for a more engaging experience — the kind of experience that doesn’t just draw people in, but makes them want to get involved with the organization — it can be costly to institute those changes, Holton said.
Certain software also has made cataloging records and artifacts easier, but some of the smallest groups might not be able to afford it, said McCormick of the Ohio Local History Alliance.
At the same time, online fundraising sites such as Kickstarter and GoFundMe have opened doors at a time when many organizations say their historic structures are badly in need of repairs. In Hilliard, for example, the historical society estimates it needs to make $27,000 worth of repairs for a new roof on its late 19th-century, one-room school and new bathrooms in the museum.
Holton said he remains committed to helping the historical society navigate the changing times.
“I can’t connect a straight line between where we are and where we need to be, but we know we need to be somewhere else,” he said. “I’m determined to do what I can to make sure people aren’t forgotten.”