One of my first forays into the realm of public history came during college, when I helped Vantage Point Historic Services on a project they were conducting for the Black Hills Knowledge Network (BHKN). BHKN is a consortium of public, university, and tribal libraries in South Dakota, which compiles information on everything from local elections to regional history. BHKN is a cutting edge initiative, aimed at solving a big problem in our increasingly digital world: that it’s often easier to find information about events on the other side of the world that those taking place in your own backyard!
In 2010, I served as one of two field historians who developed the BHKN’s Community Archives Project (CAP). Most families, businesses, and organizations have old documents, photographs, and other materials sitting in that one dusty old box in the basement. You know the one I’m talking about–there’s probably an album of your old family photos in your attic! Nobody ever throws this box out, because they know it’s important. But nobody really knows what to do with it, either. Our goal with the CAP centered upon contacting prominent businesses and organizations in the Black Hills, identifying their historical collections, and creating a huge finding aid that describes their materials and provides contact information for the materials’ owners. In so doing, we created an important resource for research into local history.
The beauty of the CAP is that we’ve essentially created a public archive without forcing owners to donate or even loan their materials to a library or archive. Organizations also maintain complete control over access to their documents, and we don’t have to fund a huge repository. The CAP, of course, sacrifices some of the protections guaranteed by having a professional archival staff and standards to protect the documents. But as far as making an initial stab at gathering information about local history and making it available for public research goes, the project is a big win!
In 2014, I also collaborated with two other historians on a website chronicling President Calvin Coolidge’s time in the Black Hills during the 1927 “Coolidge Summer.” For more information on that project, click here, and to view the website, click here!