I’ve been active with the Toronto heritage community for about 4 years now and, when I’m at a meeting or attending a heritage-related event, I expect to be the youngest person in the room by about 15 to 20 years. I’m 29.
As such, I am frequently asked by those around me what it is that got me into history, as if I am some sort of aberration. They then ask me if I have any tips on how to draw more young people into history and heritage.
The thing is, I know that young Torontonians are into this city’s history. Several colleges and universities offer programs in heritage-related fields. In recent years, Toronto culture websites such as blogTO and Torontoist, generally popular with the younger crowd, have run far more historical interest pieces than the traditional news and television outlets. A look at the comments sections of these articles will reveal excitement over the content, and laments for the loss of long-gone buildings. More personally, I have met many young Toronto history and heritage fans through Twitter, people who are interested in old stories, old buildings, and just old Toronto in general.
Aside from their ages, there does not seem to be a signficant difference between the veterans and the rookies, yet the young Toronto history fans seem to seldom interact with the “old guard.” The city’s heritage establishment and the new Toronto history generation seem to run in very different circles which seldom intersect. If all these young people like heritage so much, why are there so few of them at historical society meetings, or on walking tours, or at other history & heritage-themed events? And if the old guard likes Toronto’s history, why don’t they know about all the great online Toronto history content? (Or, for that matter, why aren’t they the ones writing it?)
THE OLD GUARD
When I refer to Toronto’s heritage community as having an “old guard,” I mean the people who have been active in Toronto’s history and heritage for several decades. They are people who have spent years fighting to preserve our city’s heritage, and who have become experts on Toronto’s past. They make up the bulk of the numbers of the city’s many historical societies, and the bulk of the numbers on most of the historical walking tours I go on. When there are meetings at city hall or at community council, respected members of the old guard are there, dutifully taking notes, asking questions, and frequently deputing.
While they may be regular users of computers and e-mail, they tend to favour what many reading this blog would consider “traditional” media: newspapers, television and radio. When at a meeting with members of the old guard, it is not uncommon to be passed a newspaper clipping from the Star, Globe or Post, or to be told to watch a certain news program or to listen to a certain radio program at a specific time.
the new guard
The “new guard,” in my head, tends to be under 40 and is more reliant on new media. They tend not show up at the heritage events I attend, or if they do, they are in considerably smaller numbers, despite clearly existing online. They may have jobs related to urban planning, and they read (and sometimes write for) Toronto media websites which the old guard often has not heard of, such as blogTO, Torontoist, Spacing, OpenFile, or the Toronto Standard.
They are very interested in (and often, quite knowledgeable about) Toronto’s history and current affairs at city hall, but I often find myself surprised to be introducing them to someone who has been involved in promoting Toronto’s history for thirty (or more) years, and to then realize that the neither the name nor the face has evoked any recognition. As an example, I am astonished by the number of young Toronto history fans I have talked to who have apparently not heard of Mike Filey. (Mike Filey, if you don’t know, has been writing popular history books about Toronto since the 1960s, has a Toronto history column in the Toronto Sun, and hosts a Toronto history show on AM 740.)
This reveals, I think, a major flaw in the way our society uses (or doesn’t use) media. The old guard is missing out on a lot of the online resources and the work of the up-and-comers, and the new generation is oblivious to so much of the excellent work that Torontonians have done (and are still doing) in terms of keeping our heritage alive. There are exceptions, of course, but this seems to me to be the general state of affairs.
CONNECTING THE TWO
How, then, to get the established and new generations of Toronto history fans and heritage advocates to interact more?
Toronto is a large and diverse city, and has a very rich history; it is not reasonable to have one organization which can effectively know all of it . City-wide heritage organizations in Toronto such as the Toronto Historical Association and Heritage Toronto rely on community organizations to help provide them historical background information and news of heritage developments. These community organizations include Toronto’s neighbourhood-based historical societies, as well as groups which are based more around a theme rather than a physical place, such as the Toronto Railway Historical Association or La Société d’histoire de Toronto. In my experience, these organizations are the logical place for all generations of Toronto historians and heritage advocates to intersect.
There are, however, two main problems. One is that people of my generation are, despite being interested in Toronto history, generally not joining these groups. The other problem is that the organizations are often out of touch with how to appeal to younger members. Established heritage groups may need to make some changes to entice and retain young history fans, and young history fans need, in my opinion, to change their conception of what a historical society actually is, or what it can be.
To these two points, I will be doing two additional posts on this subject, drawing heavily from my experiences with the West Toronto Junction Historical Society. One will focus on the reasons why young people – both history/heritage professionals and the more casual history fans – should consider joining a local historical society and, more importantly, ways that they can engage and get the most out of the experience. The other will focus on ways that historical societies can do more to attract and retain young members.
Other than general “why history/heritage matters” articles I am not familiar with other online pieces written on this subject, but if any readers knows of some, please send them my way. Hopefully my posts can start some sort of conversation. I would especially like to hear from other historical societies (including those outside of Toronto) with other ideas as to how to attract young history fans, and from young Toronto history fans who can suggest other reasons why they are reluctant to join a historical society.