Help! The Need for Volunteers in Historical Organizations

                A while back, I worked with an organization in Clinton, Iowa called the Catholic Historical Center. They are dedicated to the preservation of the remaining original Catholic Churches of Clinton, as well as the preservation of the history of Catholicism in Clinton County.

                At the first meeting that I attended, I met their vice-president, a very enthusiastic man who is dedicated to the organization. As we talked, he told me about some of the other members. At the end of that particular part of the conversation, I learned that at thirty-eight years old, I was the youngest member of their group. The next oldest one? He was in his forties. And after that, the number started at around sixty.

The whole thing raised a question in my mind: What happens when they’re all gone?

Disappearing Volunteers, Disappearing History

As I’ve stated previously, I’ve come to admire many of these kinds of organizations and have a great respect for the people that run them. But the sad fact of the matter is that none of us are getting any younger.

                We are the caretakers of our own history. If we don’t mind it, if we don’t write it down or somehow document it, then that knowledge will disappear. How many times have you looked at a picture of one of your deceased relatives and thought, “I wish that I had asked them about _____?” Once they’re gone, they’re gone for good.

                For those of us who are volunteers, historians, or simply just interested parties in local or regional histories, this concept is even more important. If we’re all gone, than what happens to our knowledge? The same thing – it all disappears. But in our case, it isn’t just what Aunt Susie wore on her wedding day, or what Grandma’s flower garden really looked like. For us, it’s much more than that.

                Many volunteers become subject matter experts. It doesn’t matter if it’s county history, the history of old cars, or information about just one particular building, these people can be experts. They may not be able to compare the Battle of Salamis to the naval engagements of the First Punic War, but these guys can tell you about who laid the brick foundation of Sally’s Hair Hut in 1909, or who owned the very first tractor in the county off the top of their head.

                Now let’s say one passes away. Now no one knows who made the stained glass windows in the Pioneer County Church on Route 5. That person read it in an old diary, but that diary was destroyed in a tragic courthouse fire before it could be transcribed. Now no one may ever have the faintest idea. And with the next person that goes on to their eternal reward, a little more history may go with them. And then again, and again, until eventually, no one remembers.  And when our history is gone like that, we all suffer.

                Gaining Knowledge through Social Media

In today’s age of social media, I think that many organizations are doing a good job of sharing what they know with both one another and with the whole world. Facebook is a perfect example of that.

                There are many organizations that have a Facebook page and/or a website, regularly sharing pictures and stories with the world at large. One of my personal favorites has been (and not just because they allow me to post this blog there) is the Forgotten Iowa History Society, a statewide community page that has over 27,000 members across the county.

                People living in California who grew up in Iowa are posting family photographs from their childhood telling the rest of us about their lives and experiences here. It’s really neat to see old photographs from other places across the state

                In addition to this, Facebook has also given us a way to actively converse with one another. I find myself in conversations with other like-minded people from all over the state of Iowa, talking about the state of affairs in our respective regions, or sharing what museums we need to go see. If we didn’t have social media, I probably wouldn’t have spoken to half of the cool people that I have through Facebook.

                But social media isn’t going to solve all of our problems. What we need is more volunteers, more people who are willing to wade in and take up the banner of historical preservation. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be many.

                We Need Your Help!

                Many of the organizations that I’ve worked with are regularly calling out for help. They desperately need people. And while social media and websites are definitely helping, organizations still need people to make the posts and tell the stories.

                In one organization that I know, five or six members just passed away last year alone. Not only is that a lot of knowledge lost, but they don’t have anyone stepping in to replace those numbers.

                Maybe some people don’t think that they have the time, especially younger ones. I myself have a family with young children, so I can definitely appreciate their sentiment. But, once again speaking from experience, you can work around it.

                You don’t have to volunteer like it’s a second job, because family should always take precedence. But could you maybe work for an hour or two on a weekend? Or maybe you can bring your children with you. I remember one time attending a Pioneer Cemetery Association meeting with one of my older children in tow, and the board members there made her feel extremely welcome.

                Perhaps other people feel like they don’t know enough to be able to make a contribution. For those of you who feel this way, please don’t worry – we love to talk! And talk, and talk, and talk. Believe it or not, I’ve actually put people to sleep talking about some of my historical interests, and some of those people are reasonable big history nerds. Rest assured, folks, we’ll be more than happy to teach you whatever you need to know or are interested in learning!  

                So please, if you’re reading this and are on the fence about volunteering, or have ever even given it some thought, consider lending a hand. Because one day, if there aren’t enough people to step in and help out, then we may lose some of our organizations – and our history – forever.  


1 thought on “Help! The Need for Volunteers in Historical Organizations”

  1. I and my wife are the curators for the Jones County Historical Society and Edinburgh Museum. We dance pretty fast for our age to keep up with buildings that are old and falling apart in our “house zoo” on the paltry $2000 the county gives us, The rest we have to raise on our own or write grants for. The vast majority of the remaining people who do the work in our group are older than the both of us, some mid seventies and those replacements aren’t showing up any time soon. Delaware county to our north has a whole college campus of buildings and the age factor and cancer has reduced their ranks considerably to the point they are going to have to give up somethings in order to concentrate on what they can. Anamosa’s historical museum threw in the towel and auctioned off the house they had been given and the artifacts they were housing with rare exceptions. Olin is probably on life support, we hear little from them anymore. Oxford Junction has a handful of hardcore folks and they do what they can; Wyoming, as a community, has managed to thrive, but have gone through one major fire and a lot of volunteers to get back to where they were. Monticello was fortunate to get a large bequest for their museum that would cover their buildings expenses but the volunteers just don’t seem to be there to carry the load as they should. The ones who do the lions share of the work should be commended with broken pipes and water everywhere they had to do a whole lot just to get back to square one. All of us can use people of every stripe, writers, researchers, grant writers, painters, handy people, mechanical people, people to mow lawn, people to tend flowers, people to organize things, people to give talks and discussions, people to set up displays, people to sweep the floor! We can find things for every ability! So if anyone in the area has even the slightest interest, we’d be happy to hear from you! We have a web site, it has contact information or you can e-mail me at I’m Steve Hanken and I will be glad to speakwith you even if you only are curious!

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