For our libraries management class we were tasked with taking a Harvard Business School case study on the difficulties facing the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) and make recommendations as if we were a young information professional sitting on the HSP board.
Reinvigorating the Historical Society of Pennsylvania for the 21st Century
In order to rebuild the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s image and standing in the community we must re-focus our mission and bring the organization into the twenty-first century. While funds are tight we can capitalize on available grants and partnerships on both the local and national level to revamp our mission, renew our image, and refresh our collections. Currently, the HSP has a diffuse mission and it is doing a disservice to its collections, members, and users by having a collection larger than it can support. To this end, the HSP must get smaller to get better. While getting smaller and stronger, the HSP must also strive to bring its collections into the twenty-first century through digitization efforts and community outreach.
The first major step in getting smaller to get better is deaccessioning the HSP art collection. With the end of our current exhibit and with no new exhibits planned for the future, our art collection has lost its value. Without using the collection to bring people into the HSP, the art is only costing us money in preservation and storage costs and the pieces have no value to the public if they are inaccessible. We must find a way to capitalize on the value of the art, both the monetary value of the pieces as well as the cultural capital of the items. In order to do this, we must sell or relocate the vast majority of the collection. A small number of specific pieces with strong ties to a print collection, such as a portrait of the person whose papers we hold, could potentially stay a part of the collection, but the vast majority of items should be either given or sold to another local Philadelphia institution. Relocating items to a local institution will leave the door open for potential future partnerships as well as provide a window into the HSP from another organization. We should first look to local organizations with similar missions and collections, such as the Atwater Kent Museum (AKM), but creating more space within the HSP is the main goal of reallocating these items.
Once the art collection has been reapportioned the HSP will be able to do the best work it can with its remaining collections. I recommend selective digitization as both a way to help bring the HSP into the 21st century and to increase institutional visibility. There are numerous grants available through the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) that are specifically designed to help libraries and museums digitize their collections and I believe that HSP would be an excellent candidate for any one of these grants. Digitization with the goal of designing online exhibits is a way that HSP could increase visibility of its collections to a new audience. The HSP’s current Interpretation Division could be restructured and retrained to move forward on a digitization project, with input from staff in the manuscripts and archives division as to which collections could be best represented and served in a digital format. Certain historical topics such as genealogy are currently en vogue, capitalizing on this trend will be a good jumping off point for HSP’s digitization project. Even a small grant from IMLS could make a huge impact.
In addition to the potential IMLS grants, HSP has heard from other foundations, such as the William Penn Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Annenberg Foundation, that were interested funding in a potential history museum. While previously this museum was conceived in a physical state, these foundations could be interested in funding the creation and maintenance of a digital exhibition space where the HSP could work with the AKM and other Philadelphia cultural and historical institutions. There have been some excellent examples of institutions that have undertaken collaborative digitization projects (see for Exhibit 1 for an example by the Triangle Research Libraries Network). Using the success of these institutions can help us to sell the project to both collaborators and funders as well as formulate best practices.
The HSP’s current outreach methods cost the society money and ignore large portions of the population. Philadelphia is a city with a vibrant and growing population of young urban professionals. Well-educated and interested in becoming part of cultural organizations, they are an excellent target for HSP outreach. By embracing social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram the HSP can use free tools to reach a broader, younger, and more interested audience. Once they are aware of the HSP’s mission and vision they can become a population that plays a part in programming and fundraising.
As HSP moves forward with these changes to our collections and our focus, we must also plan for our long-term success. Amending the mission and formulating some sort of long-term vision will help the HSP plan for the future. Soon the HSP must undertake a capital campaign or other major fundraising initiative, so now is the time to begin creating goals and broadening outreach measures. The Board will be crucial in planning and executing these initiatives; their combination of institutional knowledge and community ties will be indispensible in this process.
The most important step in implementing this plan is the first one: getting the board to change how it views the HSP. The individual board members’ long history with the HSP is valuable in some senses but can hinder progress in other ways. Change can be difficult for those with long institutional memory; however, convincing the board that small changes to certain portions of the collection are the only way to save the HSP as a whole. One way to change their mind may be a presentation of various real-life worst-case scenarios, such as the troubles befalling historical societies in Oregon, New Jersey, Ohio, Virginia, and Nevada (see Exhibit 2 for links). The HSP must downsize its collections in order to stay nimble in these times of economic uncertainty, which is only possible if we become smaller on the way to becoming stronger. While our collections may be shrinking out reach is growing through digitization projects and community outreach to new populations. Keeping this new type of growth in mind is key while reimaging the future for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Exhibit 1: Triangle Research Libraries Network Collaborative Digitization Project
Chapman, J. (2012). Impact, Value, and Visibility: large-scale collaborative digitization at TRLN. Retrieved November 6, 2013, from http://www.academia.edu/3472635/Impact_Value_and_Visibility_large- scale_collaborative_digitization_at_TRLN
Exhibit 2: Troubled Historical Societies in Other States
McConnell, J. (2009, March 4). Historical sites could be closed. Chesterfield Observer. Chesterfield County, Virgina. Retrieved from http://www.chesterfieldobserver.com/news/2009-03-04/home/004.html
McGlone, P. (2009, February 14). Cash-strapped N.J. Historical Society to slash hours, staffing. The Star-Ledger. New Jersey. Retrieved from http://www.nj.com/news/ledger/jersey/index.ssf?/base/news- 12/123458914416420.xml&coll=1
Row, D. K. (2009, February 26). Oregon Historical Society slashes staff. The Oregonian. Portland, OR. Retrieved from http://blog.oregonlive.com/visualarts/2009/02/oregon_historical_society_slas.html
Ryan, C. (2010). Museums hit under proposed cuts to state budget – Las Vegas Sun News. Retrieved from http://www.lasvegassun.com/news/2010/oct/19/museums-hit-under-proposed-cuts-state-budget/
Save Ohio History! (2009). Ohio Historical Society Archaeology Blog. Retrieved November 6, 2013, from http://apps.ohiohistory.org/ohioarchaeology/save-ohio-history/