Building Vibrant Digital Volunteer Communities for Local History: A Conversation with Kathie Gow and Robert Forrant

By Marla Miller, Past@Present Editor

In Spring 2021, the Hatfield Historical Society received funding from Mass Humanities for an innovative project to explore how best to recruit and support digital volunteers; the work will unfold over summer and winter 2021-22 and conclude in early 2022.  Like many small local history organizations, the society grapples with issues of accessibility that have been exacerbated by the global pandemic. Digital engagement seems like a possible solution, but how might the HHS (and groups like it) engage and train mostly senior volunteers in a way that will fulfill existing needs for the Society, and incorporate the skills, interests and social needs of the volunteers?  To explore those questions, the HHS has received grant funding to consider how best to build a vibrant and sustainable volunteer program.  To contribute to the process, the HHS project will tap the experience and insight of two members of the UMass Amherst History community: alumnus Robert Forrant and Public History Program director Marla Miller.  In the interview below, Kathie Gow, curator of the Hatfield Historical Museum, Forrant and Miller discuss the project’s aims and potential, work that will surely be of interest to organizations across Massachusetts.

MRM: Kathie, can you kick us off by sharing a little bit about how you came to develop this project?  What activities will the grant funds support?

KG: When Meguey Baker (Hatfield Historical Museum Collections Assistant) and I sat down in January to discuss the coming year’s priorities — based on more general priorities set by the Hatfield Historical Society (HHS) board, which funds our two positions — we knew we wanted to do projects that would hit a lot of our goals. Those goals included engaging our community in Hatfield history, expanding our reach beyond those who already knew us, discovering and connecting stories about artifacts in the collection, and building a volunteer corps. (Oh yeah, and then add some reality in–like, we’re challenged to keep on top of collections management and project work as it is, with funds the Society has been able to raise from its generous supporters, AND, we’re in a pandemic, and no volunteers have been allowed into the museum since mid-March 2020). 

So Mass Humanities’ Digital Capacity grants couldn’t have come at a better time!

The grant will support staff time to work with a half-dozen volunteers over the coming year, plus our two Humanities scholars (you and Bob), all of whom bring great skills and experiences to the project. It will also pay for the first year of an upgrade to the Pro version of our free website builder (Weebly), which gives us capabilities we’ll need for the project, and help fund our upgrade to the paid version of Zoom, which will be our primary platform for engaging with volunteers.

This was one of the last times volunteers and visitors were allowed into the Hatfield Historical Museum in February 2020, just before Covid shut the museum down. Volunteer Wunderley Stauder is writing up artifact intake sheets with Megue Baker.

MRM:  Bob, how did you come to get involved?  What priorities will you bring to this initiative?

RF: During Covid Times I have been continuing to do research and have spent time in the Lawrence Public Library and the Lawrence History Center. I also exchanged frequent emails with archivists at the Massachusetts State Archives. Through the efforts of these institutions I was able to get quite a bit of work done and it made me realize how difficult the last fifteen months have been for dedicated people who care about, collect, archive, and make available the historical record for us. I had also spent a great few months working on a research project in Hatfield with boxes and boxes of materials lovingly organized by the folks at the Hatfield Historical Society. 

When I was asked about whether I would want to be involved in a project in Hatfield again, it was an easy decision. For people like me who engage in public history projects and want to utilize local history in their classroom efforts, it is incumbent that we do everything we can to support local history organizations. As a researcher and board member of the Lawrence History Center, I can add my knowledge of how institutions like this work to the project. At the same time, by being involved with a local history organization, I can learn lots about best practices for working in such organizations. It may also help me to identify how I want to volunteer when ever I decide to retire from UMass Lowell!

MRM: How has HHS been coping with the effects of the pandemic, especially around Hatfield’s anniversary year?

KG: Like for most museums and historical societies, especially small ones, it has been a challenging year, made all the more frustrating and sad because 2020 was our town’s 350th anniversary year. It was also the Hatfield Historical Society’s 50th anniversary, which should have been a great opportunity for us to promote the work HHS has been doing. It meant that most of 2020’s scheduled events got cancelled, and our opportunities to engage in person with the public disappeared.

But we did not sit idle! We shifted gears, and of course with growing pains (we are still figuring things out), we embraced the digital platform. We were delighted to be asked last fall by Bill Hosely (of Terra Firma Northeast) to participate in the Mass Historical Society Zoom program, “A Treasury of Massachusetts House Museums and Local History Orgs: Part III: Hidden Gems” (you can watch the program HERE) to introduce our organization and the collections we manage for the Town of Hatfield to their audience.

Participation in this Nov. 23, 2020, live-streaming program from the Mass Historical Society let us showcase hidden gems in our collections.

 Then we developed digital programs for our spring 2021 events (like for many places, this was new ground for us), in response to new opportunities that presented themselves:

–A 2020 request to remember the 60th anniversaries of our underdog high school’s championship basketball teams turned into a digital exhibit and panel discussion on Zoom on March 18, 2021, that drew more than 70 attendees, with a lot of popular appeal (see exhibit HERE and program HERE)

–a digitization of Hatfield’s early records by local historian Peter Thomas last September turned into the well-received HHS program, “Church and Town, Saints and Sinners: The Congregational Church and the Town of Hatfield, the First 200 Years,”, which ran April 22

–and an October donation by Hadley farmer Joe Malinowski of more than 200 glass slides of Hatfield photographer Lewis H. Kingsley will be the subject of our May 27 program, “Hatfield History Comes Home: Rediscovering the Lost Slides of L.H. Kingsley.”

Being forced to offer digital alternatives to in-person programs has provided other benefits — members and other interested folks who live across the country or the globe have been able to participate, and it’s brought old friends together. And if it’s snowy and cold, no one has to leave their house!

Here’s one of the panel speakers from our March Zoom program on Smith Academy’s championship basketball teams of 1960 and 1961: Marty Wilkes, who participated from his home in Australia. Photo courtesy of his daughter Andrea Parker.

MRM: One of the things that really excites me about this project is the thought that it gives to what makes volunteer work meaningful, especially for folks who have retired from long careers and looking to contribute in new ways.  The project also intersects with our program’s longstanging interest in how history engagement intersects with healthy aging, and particularly how to create opportunities for seniors for whom travel to collections is challenging. Kathie, though anyone can be a digital volunteer, how might this project particularly serve Hatfield seniors?

KG: In particular, we plan to recruit seniors who are no longer working, and who may be looking for meaningful work and ways to connect, especially during the tail end of the pandemic. Seniors possess a wealth of knowledge and skills that could help us meet our mission, especially when it comes to the history of the town, but we’re competing against other nonprofits and many other activities and responsibilities in their lives. Our goal is to design a program that is well organized, offers lots of options, and provides both a social outlet and the skills to enter or advance in the new digital world, which we think is here to stay.

At the heart of this project is a question, though: “What makes volunteer work engaging and meaningful, especially for seniors? (and for our most frequent past volunteers — senior women?)” Not only what types of work but what factors make them keep coming back and want to recruit their friends?

Our goal with this grant is to answer these questions, and use them to sustain a thriving digital volunteer program.

MRM: Bob, this is your second collaboration with HHS; in 2017 you served as scholar-in-residence.  Why do you think local history engagement is important for faculty members like yourself?

With my focus on New England history and public history, the stuff of my research is very often found tucked away in local historical societies, well-preserved historical homes, and research organizations dedicated to preserving local history. I have done research in wonderful institutions like the American Antiquarian Society and the Massachusetts Historical Society and I read original copies of William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator at the Boston Public Library. These places are heavily resourced, well-funded, and have large staffs. Local historical societies and museums struggle to make ends meet. They do very important work collecting, cataloging, and making available lots of material that the aforementioned organizations ordinarily bypass. 

Yet, it is these very materials that offer us terrific insights into the day-to-day of everyday people. This is what I am interested in most. Thus, it is important for me to work as much as possible with these organizations. In addition, most of the students who take classes with me, will not become college and university history teachers. They will settle down someplace and hopefully become active participants in the affairs of their communities. It is my hope that by introducing local history and historical organizations to my students, some of them will in turn become engaged with their local history organizations. And, as an added bonus, they may discover the value of preserving their grandmother’s diaries and donating them to an organization like the Hatfield Historical Museum or the Lawrence History Center.

MRM: Kathie, for a small nonprofit that has only recently moved from a fully volunteer model to one with some part-time paid staff, I’ve been impressed with the Hatfield Historical Society’s digital engagement — the fab website, Facebook page, YouTube channel, and, this past year, digital programs. For other small historical sites out there looking to increase their digital reach, do you have any suggestions?

KG: Of course make use of free webinars, YouTube tutorials and “borrow” good ideas wherever you find them. But looking at the bigger picture, what makes this kind of work possible? Three things come to mind.

The first is to pursue grants. Grants have been a huge help in getting us where we are today, and this most recent grant is our 5th, I think, from Mass Humanities. We’ve also participated in a few PVHN grants, and three grants from Mass SHRAB, the most recent being one of their Preservation Grants for Veterans’ Collections, which allowed us to do a digital oral history project to record Hatfield’s Vietnam War veterans. (You can check it out HERE).

But our biggest help probably came from our town’s Community Preservation Act — five years of funding to help us inventory and preserve our existing collections. Without that, I don’t think we could have gotten off the ground, nor would our organization have had a model by which to see the difference between a fully volunteer corps and having part-time paid staff.

Even though your organization might be awarded $3,000, though, grants are not “free.” We wouldn’t have been able to pursue grants (look for them, review the fine print, write them and administer them) without the financial support of the Hatfield Historical Society. The HHS board had the vision and the resolve to make those tough decisions and go for it so we could provide more services to our community. 

The third element that’s important to making forward progress, especially in new areas like digital engagement, is having the support of your town — not just your Community Preservation Committee (if you have one, and if you don’t, you should try to get one!), but also your Historical Commission,  your town administrators, and even your DPW Department. When everyone is pulling in the same direction, it’s amazing what can be accomplished. 

MRM: Wow, that’s all great advice! Kathie, Bob, thanks so much for taking the time to talk about this terrific initiative. Best wishes for a productive and rewarding summer!

Kathie Gow is a Curator at the Hatfield Historical Museum and Board Member of the Hatfield Historical Society.

Robert Forrant (PhD. ’94) is a Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

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