Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation: Part 2 – How Young People Can Join a Community Historical Society or Heritage Group

If you haven’t seen my previous post on the generation gap in Toronto’s heritage community, I suggest you read it first before continuing: https://davidwencer.wordpress.com/2011/12/01/talkin-bout-my-generation-part-1/

This piece was originally going to be an attempt to persuade young Torontonians to join their local historical society. However, based on the feedback I got from my previous post on bridging the generation gap in Toronto’s heritage community, it seems that there are a lot of young history and heritage fans out there who already want to be more involved, but who either do not know where to start or who have had a hard time finding volunteer opportunities.

As this strikes me as a more pressing concern, this post draws upon my own experiences with my local historical society and offers some tips for people (especially young people) looking for volunteer opportunities with community-level heritage organizations. I have kept my advice fairly general so that it might equally aid aspiring historians, people who are more interested in heritage preservation, and people with a less-defined desire to contribute to their community.

HISTORICAL SOCIETIES

In Toronto, historical societies are volunteer groups which collect information about a community and promote local heritage through a variety of activities. Although many historical societies are registered with umbrella organizations such as the Ontario Historical Society, there is no official system which mandates that every Toronto community has a historical society. Indeed, some communities may be served by multiple groups.  Some Toronto neighbourhoods have no official historical society at all, save for city-wide organizations or groups which concentrate on a specific subject or theme, as opposed to a physical boundary.

If you’re looking for a list of Toronto historical societies and heritage groups, there is one on the Heritage Toronto website: http://www.heritagetoronto.org/find-out-more/heritage-community/toronto-groups (Note that some of these groups do not have websites. I’ll touch on that later.)

A HISTORICAL SOCIETY MAY NOT BE WHAT YOU THINK IT IS

When I first visited the archives of the West Toronto Junction Historical Society (WTJHS), the group with which I am now most active, I think I was expecting the people there to be old-fashioned folk who were only interested in nostalgically recollecting the “good old days.”

Many others seem to assume the opposite. The WTJHS sometimes gets formal applications and resumes from people expecting paid employment or to be delegated tasks specific to their field of study.

The reality is that a historical society is a volunteer organization made up of a collection of individuals with a shared interest in their community. Many groups have members with professional backgrounds in planning, or architecture, or academia, but I have found that many active members are people who are simply interested in history and their community’s heritage.

As such, while a community heritage organization works on specific projects or initiatives, it may not always speak with a unified voice, and it may not have a sophisticated structure which makes it easy to delegate tasks to newcomers.

Therefore, a community group may not know how to best use a new volunteer, and this new volunteer may not know, at least not at first, the best way that they can contribute to the organization. In fact, if a prospective volunteer starts by sending an e-mail which goes into too much detail about their professional qualifications, the historical society might not respond, as they may think that the volunteer wants a specific experience which they, as a group, cannot readily provide.

The activities of a community heritage group depend on the interests and strengths of their members. Often the members will have their own independent projects, and will work with the organization to pool resources and exchange information. Usually there are some collective projects of mutual interest to the active members of the group.

Some organizations focus heavily on development issues, such as heritage designations and conservation districts, but other groups do considerably less of this, focussing more on publicizing the history of their community. Some groups place a greater emphasis on producing publications, or on booking engaging speakers, or on erecting plaques, or on leading tours.

BE PREPARED TO PHYSICALLY GO TO EVENTS AND TALK TO PEOPLE IN PERSON

I cannot stress this enough.

One of the big complaints against much of the established heritage community is the lack of an online presence. This criticism is, in my opinion, quite a valid one, but standing there with your hands on your hips, waiting for a historical society to improve their website or respond from an irregularly-checked e-mail account is not going to solve the problem. When I first offered to volunteer at the WTJHS, I left my phone number at their office and wasn’t called back for several months. Does this sound familiar to anyone?

Historical society veterans have Toronto’s history inside their brains, and are eager to share their knowledge with others. If you want to get access to a heritage group, and if that heritage group isn’t making itself available online where you expect it to be, then it is your responsibility to go to it.

Honestly, the best way to penetrate the heritage community is to talk to people in person. Most heritage groups have public meetings, perhaps every month or every other month. In my experience, these meetings are filled with a diverse group of people with interesting insights, memories and experiences. The best way to find out about an organization is to go to these meetings, introduce yourself, and start asking questions. Explain a bit about your background, about what you already know and what you like to learn about. Jane Jacobs wrote that to know your city, “you’ve got to get out and walk.” The interactive experience is also important if you want to get to know your community’s history and heritage.

Walking tours can be an excellent place to meet local heritage veterans - they're often the ones leading them.

If the scheduled meetings conflict with another commitment of yours, there are usually other options. Some historical societies have an archives which they open up to the public. Most groups do some form of public programming, such as walking tours. You can feel a bit foolish or pretentious introducing yourself to the walk leaders (or to other people on the tour), but it is well worth doing. Talk to them about history and heritage, and ask if there are ways that you can contribute or join their group as a member. Once you start to get to know people you can obviously progress to phone numbers and e-mail addresses, but I think that direct communication is an essential starting point.

This idea can extend beyond the historical society. It is worth doing the same thing at a meeting of your local Residents Association, or to talk to local business owners. You can learn a lot about your community’s history by talking to your neighbours. One of the ways I first contributed to the WTJHS was to unofficially report on historical society activities at meetings of the Junction Residents Association, and vice versa. By taking on this role I began to meet people, and people began to associate me with being someone either who knew information, or who knew how to get it.

This is, incidentally, another good reason to start with a historical society which is local to you.  Going to meetings and talking to people will be far simpler if they are geographically convenient.  If your immediate community does not appear to have a local historical society, ask about heritage at a local Residents Association or Ratepayers Group, as it’s possible that this is where the local heritage experts are.  Of course some groups, such as the North York Historical Society or Scarborough Historical Society, have very large catchment areas.

IF YOU WANT TO BE VERY ACTIVELY INVOLVED, LET YOUR GROUP KNOW

Having talked about this with people from other historical societies, I find some veterans are surprised to learn that there are young people who wish to actively contribute. While help is (hopefully) always welcomed, this is not necessarily the kind of volunteer they are expecting.

A major concern with historical societies right now is dwindling membership. While historical societies are always thrilled to have new people who can contribute to the organization and to the group’s specific community, they also wish to see people attending their meetings and paying membership dues. Not only is the money important in order to help keep the group functional, but being able to boast of a high membership total gives the group clout when they take on an advocacy role.

As such, when a new young person shows up, the group doesn’t necessarily expect them to be dynamic right away. If you are looking to be “put to work,” make this clear when you talk to the active members, because otherwise they think you have lost interest if you don’t take out a membership or show up to the next meeting.

If you are looking for a temporary assignment, some historical societies apply for grants which allow them to hire a student to work on a specific project. The WTJHS, and I assume this is true of other groups, is then happy to provide references for the students who contribute. That said, however…

BE PREPARED TO MAKE A LONG-TERM COMMITMENT

One problem which discourages historical societies is that volunteers will arrive, do some work for two months, and are then never heard from again. Part of the point of heritage is keeping knowledge and information alive in perpetuity. Heritage veterans are looking for people in whom they can cultivate knowledge about certain places, buildings, people, streets, and landscapes.  People who can one day assume the reins.

When a young volunteer leaves after only a few months, members of the historical society may feel that they have failed as a group to install a passion for the community in their volunteer, or that the volunteer was, from the group’s perspective, a wasted investment. This may make the group wary of taking on young volunteers in the future.

When building your CV, it can look good to say that you had a placement with a historical society and completed one or two specific projects. It can look just as good, if not better, to say that you are a member of your local historical society, and that your association with this group is an active one.

If you are working or seeking to work full-time, being a member need not be a major commitment. The amount of time which you can contribute will be influenced by other personal, family, and professional commitments. Depending on your interest and your professional skills, membership may involve attending a few events throughout the year, contributing to a newsletter, and/or simply interacting with the other members of your organization.

Membership with a heritage organization indicates a dedication to your community and an appreciation that heritage is not a fleeting, short-term commitment, but rather something which holds your interest.

BE PREPARED TO DO THINGS OUTSIDE YOUR AREAS OF EXPERTISE

When we get new volunteers at the WTJHS, we try our best to match an activity appropriate to the person’s specific interests, but this is not always easy.

This is me, in the spring of 2008, playing "The Maple Leaf Forever" at the launch of the 2008 Junction Centennial. Credit: David Bridge

Groups need volunteers to do a variety of things. Even though my background is in archives, I have done research, writing, editing, AV assistance, manning the group’s booth at events, speaking at local schools, and playing “The Maple Leaf Forever” on the tuba while wearing historical dress. Currently I am the corresponding secretary of the WTJHS, meaning that I sit on the executive (I suspect I may be the only person under 30 to be on a Toronto historical society’s executive) and handle much of the e-mail and media communication, despite having no professional background in this kind of work.  I’ve been able to get to this point because I have done a wide variety of tasks for the group.  Through these tasks, I have come to learn a little bit about many different aspects of my community’s history, and have acquired a good sense as to how the organization works, which of our members are the experts on which topics, and the scope of the material in our archives.

A historical society also needs people to generate displays, and to balance the cheque book, and to keep track of memberships. These are excellent activities for people who wish to volunteer with their local group but don’t yet know the history of the neighbourhood or know how they can contribute.  Once you get to know your community group there is no reason why you cannot also work on a project more specific to your interests, but tasks like this give you that first “in.”  It may be seem like grunt work, but it’s work that needs to be done, and it genuinely helps acquaint you with the organization.  (If you’re unemployed and poor, it is also a way that you can contribute if you can’t afford the membership, although most annual memberships to community historical societies are fairly low.)

You may find that your group has a primitive website, or no website at all, and, as you are young, the veterans with the group may ask if you can help with this. If you feel that you can take this on, this is another way to familiarize yourself with a community heritage group and its local history. You need not have extensive experience with web design in order to take this on.  The WTJHS, the Scarborough Historical Society, and the Riverdale Historical Society have recently switched to WordPress, resulting in simple but effective websites (although there may be room for improvement, of course).

I should also add that moving outside your area of specialization can also be a way to meet people at larger organizations. This past year I volunteered with Heritage Toronto through Doors Open Toronto, where I was a tour shepherd at the Toronto Dominion Centre.  I got to spend a few hours on the executive level, guiding groups of visitors from station to station.  Not only was I there far longer there than the visitors who had waited in line for the privilege, I got to listen to multiple tours (each of which was a little bit different than the previous one) and talk with the other volunteers. And I knew next to nothing about the TD Centre when I agreed to do it.

BE PATIENT

It can be frustrating when you want to contribute but don’t know how. This initial frustration can increase if the group does not seem to have specific tasks for which they need your help. This is one of the biggest problems I’ve seen with trying to get new volunteers integrated with a historical society.

In my experience, once you start getting a feel for the local history of your community and, more importantly, how your group functions (or doesn’t function, as the case may be), you can better identify ways that you can assist.

If there isn’t something specific for you to do, a simple option is to start asking questions. If you want to know about specific people or buildings or other aspects of your community’s history and heritage, the veterans should be able to refer you to the appropriate source. When you reach the limit of pre-existing material, you may have hit upon a specific subject which warrants further research, and thus you may have found a way to contribute.

If you don’t already know a lot about your community’s history, you may find it daunting to be in a room full of older people who seem to know far more than you do.  There is no magic bullet for learning neighbourhood history. If you really want to know your community’s history, you will have to be prepared to do a variety of activities over a period of time. The longer you are exposed to and work with your community’s heritage the more you will come to actually know it.

As an extra tip here, not every group is lucky enough to have an archives of old photos and material, but most groups do have old newsletters and publications which they have made. These can be an excellent source of information about both the history of the community and about the history of the organization. I have learned quite a lot by going through old WTJHS newsletters from before I joined the group, not only about the history of my neighbourhood, but also about how this historical knowledge was acquired and what heritage issues my community has faced over the years.

YOU CAN HELP SHAPE THE DIRECTION OF THE GROUP

A historical society chooses its activities and programming based on what it perceives to be the interests of its members and its constituency. If you find that you aren’t interested in your group’s current projects, or want them to focus on a different aspect of heritage, speak up and offer to help work on it.

For example, after spending several months with the WTJHS doing a variety of tasks, I noticed that, in comparison to other years, the group was mostly concerned with public history education, and less involved with planning and nominating buildings for heritage protection.

200 Annette Street, being converted into residential units this past summer.

At the same time, I noticed a For Sale sign outside a small Junction church. Although the building was at this time listed on Toronto’s heritage inventory, it was not designated under the Ontario Heritage Act. Finding that the WTJHS had far less information about it in their archives compared with other neighbourhood churches, I began talking to some of the group’s members about it and starting building a more complete file for the society’s records. I talked to a local resident who keeps a blog about neighbourhood development issues, and the two of us went to the Canadian Baptist Archives at McMaster Divinity College on a research trip.

Several members of the WTJHS offered assistance, ranging from personal memories to artifacts connected to the church.  After talking to as many people and collecting as much information as I could, I decided that the property was worth nominating for designation, and submitted the paperwork through the Etobicoke York Community Preservation Panel, securing the endorsement of the WTJHS.  I am happy to say that, this past winter, the city completed the designation [pdf]. This was my first foray into heritage advocacy through the WTJHS, and the information I collected is now in the society’s archives.

IT CAN BE A FORUM FOR WORK YOU ARE DOING ANYWAY

If you are already interested in being active in a historical society, there is a good chance that you are already researching or doing work on your own, outside of the organization.  Even if you’re not a professional, there is a good chance you are monitoring planning decisions at city hall, or researching old buildings which interest you.  If nothing else, you are probably reading about Toronto’s history, or learning how to identify different architectural styles.

This is the sort of knowledge that you will want to exchange with other members of your heritage group, even if it does not have an immediate application.  Community groups tend to be fairly small, and can only put on a few projects each year in order not to spread themselves thin.  While working on their chosen projects, however, they are amassing information which can be used in future years.

For young historians, either academic or popular/free-lance, a historical society is a way to share your information with the local community. The people who attend meetings or who read the newsletters are exactly the sort of people who will want to learn about what you do or what you know. If you’re a person with historical knowledge or ideas about heritage, a community heritage group thrives on your contributions.

Baby boomers and seniors may dominate many historical societies, but they tend to be dynamic people who are active in their community and seeking to enrich their knowledge. I find that (most) people who attend historical society meetings are unified by their willingness to learn. I see a historical society as a collection of everything that a community has learned about itself, so if people with knowledge do not contribute to it, it fails. Heritage can become lost because if a historical society doesn’t gather the information and integrate it into their community’s narrative, nobody else will.

A young historian may assume that the relevant historical society already knows about his/her work, but this may not be the case. Don’t be shy about contacting a community heritage organization if you have done some research relevant to their community. They may be interested in spreading word of your work amongst their members.

Publishing, I also find, can act as a form research. Sometimes I have proudly announced a “discovery” at a historical society meeting, only to find that one or more people present know even more about the subject, and can add to what I already have. I have had similar experiences when publishing articles in the WTJHS newsletter. It is tempting to not publish something until it is “done,” but in history it seems that there is always more that can be added, and new points to make. Sharing your work with a local historical society can help make your work better.

pitch your own project

It’s not always obvious what “needs” to be done in the heritage community.  There isn’t always somebody out there with a list of activities for young people to do, and you may have to suggest your own projects.  If there is something specific that you want the group to do, you may have to make that opportunity happen yourself.

In the summer of 2008, an old cornerstone was found in the Junction, which the WTJHS determined had once been part of a demolished post office.  I asked people at the historical society what they knew about this post office and then did what additional research I could.  Having now compiled all this information, I asked if I could write an account of the cornerstone for the WTJHS’ quarterly newsletter.  It wasn’t a particularly fancy article, and the newsletter has a fairly limited circulation, but it nevertheless made me a published historian.

Following a few similar experiences, my popular history writing skills had improved, and I responded to a request from Heritage Toronto, who at the time wanted writers for their website.  Not only did I now have a small portfolio, but I also had the endorsement of respected members of my local historical society.

While veterans of historical societies may not be able to fact-check every aspect of your research, they can certainly help you present and format your ideas, or put them into context.  If you join a historical society with an idea for the sort of work you want to do, or if you get an idea after you’ve learned a bit about your organization, ask the other members about this, and find out who can help you. My first research and writing efforts came across like university essays, and with the help of my local historical society, I like to think that I’ve improved. (I’m still making adjustments, of course, and still solicit feedback.)

FURTHER THOUGHTS

Getting involved with a community heritage group can seem like an overwhelming experience when you first start out. When I first started I knew very little about my neighbourhood’s history and had no conception as to how heritage worked at city hall. I expected my volunteering at the WTJHS would be temporary, and I certainly was not expecting to become a member, much less serve on its executive.

One of the key things I have grown to realize, however, is that like heritage itself, local historical societies are based on a strong sense of inter-connectedness. You can’t really spend a few weeks “doing heritage stuff” and then move on.  Being involved with heritage isn’t about a temporary interest.  It’s something which you cultivate and which hopefully lasts through a lifetime. It involves a continuous learning process, a perpetual exchange of information, and finding new ways to enhance your community.

These ideas are hardly complete.  I am sure that others have further suggestions, or disagree with part (or all) of what I have written.  I am not so arrogant as to assume that I know it all, or that my experiences with volunteer historical societies have been universal.  My primary goal in writing these particular entries is to foster conversation.  (This is an example of publishing acting as a form of research!)

To reiterate from my initial post on this subject, I also believe that historical societies can be doing significantly more to attract and assist younger members, and hope to have my thoughts on this subject collected and posted here soon.

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