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How To: Form a Local Historical Society

Getting Started

Now do you go about establishing a local historical society? An organizing group with enthusiasm is all that is necessary to start on your venture. Is there an existing organization that performs all of the afore-mentioned functions that you might unite with? If not, then you are ready to form your own society.

Where do you start? Most often the initiative comes from a small group of five or six enthusiasts, who are motivated to action by any number of events: saving an old building from destruction, celebrating a centennial, writing a local history, or acquiring historical materials and documents from defunct organization or, a historical society may be organized because a group of individuals wish to come together to study and appreciate the history of their community.

Formulating a Statement of Purpose

A clear, concise statement of purpose is the foundation of a local society and a guide for its future growth. An all-inclusive statement will orient your society towards a well-rounded, balanced program, and clarity of goals. Such a society is more likely to be successful, and can more easily satisfy the wishes of a larger membership of varied interests. In addition, when the time comes for you to seek financial support from individuals or the community, it will be to your advantage to have a broad, inclusive program which the community will support. It is best to include all of the important activities of a strong historical society in the statement of purpose.

A written list of the pertinent reasons for organizing a society will be useful to the organizing group when it goes out to persuade others to join. Regional boundaries should be considered. There is often a natural relationship between the unit of government and the geographical limits of an historical society.

There are advantages to making an effort to draw members from the surrounding area. The society will be richer and stronger because of greater contributions from a broader base of participation. Adding the words "and district", can draw in a wider group.

When To Begin

An important factor you must consider in making plans for organizing is timing. When is the best time to organize an historical society? Obviously there is no set rule, but certainly Christmas, summer holidays, seeding or harvest time are not the best times to get people involved. Community mood is important. Fiftieth, seventy-fifth, or centennial celebrations alert the whole community to its history. Impending demolition of a local buildings fairs, anniversaries of historical events, etc. are often a good opportunity to launch an historical society. Timing depends upon local conditions. Use good judgment and imagination in choosing the time to start your drive.

Getting Others Started

After your group has made the decision, plan carefully. Set the date and hour, and arrange for a place to meet. What type of program should you have for your organizational meeting? Keep in mind that this first meeting is to convince those interested in history to join you in forming a local historical society. A good organizational meeting should start with the temporary chairman explaining your statement of purpose, with a few concrete examples to illustrate significant points.

The second part of the program should be aimed at kindling the flames of enthusiasm to the point of action. Whatever program you schedule for this meeting, concentrate on quality rather than quantity. You might call upon the Manitoba Historical Society to help you. The Society will assist in any way possible and could at this point give a brief slide presentation illustrating the work of the Society throughout the province.

Publicity

The program has been prepared, the time, the place and date of the organizational meeting have been arranged. Prospects for membership need to be notified. Arrange to notify the press, the radio, and television with information about your first meeting.

The public information should be supplemented by direct personal contact. It is helpful to first obtain the support of local officials and leading citizens of your area in order to secure public approval. Write to the civic leaders in the community asking for their support. Invite them to attend. Make direct contact with leaders of Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis, Women's Institute, agricultural, professional business, and religious organizations within the area. Town and municipal officials should be encouraged to lend their support since local councilors may become active members.

Membership

Now you are ready to solicit directly the people that might wish to join. Remember that interest in local history transcends all occupational, nationality, or religious boundaries. Membership in local societies should include as many different groups as possible - doctors, lawyers, teachers, laborers, homemakers, farmers, clergymen, and business people. All of these and other occupational groups can be found in the ranks of a successful local historical society. To reach all of these groups, talk to them, call people on the phone, present your proposal to the widest possible audience. Persuade them to come to your organizational meeting.

Most of the immediate organizing group will know one or two people interested in becoming members. That is not enough! Who are likely prospects for membership? Almost anyone and everyone! For example, the janitor at the school, has been for years collecting artifacts of early settlers of the region, from farming tools to household supplies. The retired doctor down the street, who is credited with delivering half the population, has been doing research on the history of your community, since long before he quit his practice. He is now ready to write a book. These are potential members.

The owner of the local hardware store is an enthusiastic and serious student of early mining in the area and has collected many artifacts. Mrs. Smith, with her children grown, might become an eager and active member of your group. The principal at the local school majored in history. His grandfather was wounded overseas in the First World War, and he has his grandfather's collection of letters describing army life at that time. The principal also has the letters that his grandmother wrote to her soldier husband which give a good account of how the war affected life in your community. Convince the people whom you approach that they do not have to be professional to be local society members.

Do not make the mistake of thinking a member of a local society is not worthy of inclusion unless he is an "old-timer". Make an effort to invite people of all ages. Many older men and women do have a perspective born of experience, which, in turn, tends to make them more aware of the importance of history, but increasingly, younger people are developing great appetites for the story of their past. Newcomers, too, have a special contribution to make as, so often, they see with "new eyes" what longtime residents have ceased to notice. They very often are the ones that spark the formation of a local historical society, realizing the wealth of heritage that an area contains. The broader the social, economic, and occupational base of membership, the more stable your historical society will be.

Initial Meeting

The first formal meeting is crucial. Carry out your program with zest and enthusiasm. You have spent many hours preparing for this meeting, make sure it will pay off. For this initial meeting it might be wise to have a temporary display of old photographs of the community and its early settlers. Before starting, have your guests try to identify the people and places in them. A few unusual museum objects might also serve as conversational pieces. It is an excellent way to get people acquainted and interested. After a few brief remarks stating why your community should have an historical society and what kind of activities it intends to support, a guest speaker can make a brief presentation.

After the motion to organize you are ready to forge onward. A member of the organizing group should propose a motion empowering the temporary chairman to appoint a Committee of Organization responsible for drafting a constitution and by-laws to be presented at the next meeting. This committee should include some of the members attending for the first time as it is important to make them feel a part of the new organization. It should also include someone familiar with drawing up rules and regulations for clubs and societies.

Before you adjourn the first meeting, be sure to set the date, time and place for a second meeting about three weeks later. Also have the temporary secretary obtain the names, addresses, postal codes, and telephone numbers of all those who attended and expressed an interest in joining your society. Next comes the motion to adjourn. The remainder of the evening can be spent visiting with those present.

After your organizational meeting, the important work shifts from the organizational group to the Committee on Organization. It must draw up the rules and regulations under which the society will operate.

Becoming Incorporated

In Manitoba it is best for the society to be incorporated for the following reasons:

  • You should incorporate the society, as the society then becomes a legal entity; members of the society will be immune from individual liability, whether from society debts or other unforeseeable legal action against your group.
  • The society will enjoy perpetual existence. Under the articles of incorporation, title to any property is held in the name of the society, and will be protected from falling into the hands of individual members, should the society ever dissolve.
  • Incorporation gives your society legal status. On this basis the group can apply to the Government of Canada for charitable status for the purpose of issuing income tax receipts. The present tax laws act as an incentive for individuals or groups, business or private groups to donate generously to your organization. It is best to be prepared to receive gifts and bequests.

By-Laws

Whether or not you incorporate, you will want a set of by-laws which will specify the details of organization and procedure. By-laws should be flexible enough to make operating procedures easy. The Committee on Organization should have the constitution and by-laws ready to submit to the society's second meeting. If it is possible to have them duplicated and mailed out to the members before the meeting it would be helpful, as it would give the members a chance to read and study them beforehand. The by-laws usually include:

  • Name
  • Purpose
  • Members
  • Officers and their duties and term of office
  • Meetings
  • Executive
  • Committees
  • Amending the By-Laws

A good guide is found in Robert's Rules of Order which is readily available.

Dues and Membership Fees

Under the by-laws, classes of dues and membership fees should be carefully determined. The simplest of all is to have one rate for everyone. An historical society is an educational institution and therefore it can ask civic, service or fraternal organizations for financial donations. As well as business and professional memberships, a society may have several different categories of membership for individuals. Bear in mind that the fee should be high enough to cover the costs involved in servicing the membership.

In drawing up the by-laws, the Committee on Organization has the choice of empowering the president and/or board of directors to appoint as many standing committees as may be thought necessary for administering the society's functions and activities. The Committee may want to write into the by-laws a specific number of standing committees. These may be established at the time of organization, whether or not the society is actually ready to take on a broad program.

Suggested committees are:

  1. Library - responsible for the collection, cataloging, care, arrangement, and repair of books, manuscripts, newspapers, and other library materials.
  2. Museum - responsible for the collection, cataloging, cleaning, repair, care, and storage of historic objects; for arranging museum exhibits and for the historic interpretation of these exhibits.
  3. Publications - responsible for finding ways and means for publishing information and research studies in a newsletter to members, in a quarterly bulletin, books, radio or television programs.
  4. Historic sites - responsible for establishing the historic validity of sites proposed for marking; for marking historic sites; for arranging historic tours.
  5. Education - responsible for arranging suitable programs; for setting time, place and date of meeting.
  6. Membership - responsible for drives and for processing applications for membership.
  7. Nominations - responsible for making nominations for officers and members of the board of directors.
  8. Fund-raising - there will always be some project that needs funding. The more ambitious the projects the more ingenuity will be necessary for fund-raising. These are only suggestions for committee structure, as the number of committees and their responsibilities have to be in relation to the number of volunteers available.

Formal Organization

The second meeting of your local historical society should be devoted to the problems of formal organization. Remember that this meeting is as important as the first, and good planning is again essential. The temporary chairman should have made the arrangements for a place to meet, preferably the same as the first meeting. The temporary secretary will have sent out notices of the meeting by mail to those who attended the first meeting. The temporary chairman, assisted by other members of the original organizing group, will co-operate in promoting interest in the meeting. They should send notices of the meeting to the local newspaper. A visit to the local editor might result in a sympathetic editorial encouraging the new society. Phone persons who did not attend the first meeting but who might be interested in joining. Publicity is always important as it is one of the best ways of attracting new members. A positive approach is as important at this stage as at any other.

The temporary chairman should open the meeting, and request the temporary secretary to read the minutes of the previous meeting. After the minutes have been approved, the temporary chairman will call for a report from the Committee of constitution and move its adoption. After the motion has been seconded, the proposition is open for discussion. If copies of the proposed document have been distributed to the members, the work of amending and ratifying will be much simpler. After the adoption of the basic document, the same procedure is followed for the by-laws.

The membership, acting as a committee of the whole, can appoint a nominating committee to present a slate of officers and candidates for a board of directors for the next meeting. The highlight of the next meeting will be the election of officers with an appropriate pledge to carry out the aims and objectives of the new local historical society. This procedure for organizing is only a guide. Organization will not always follow a clear cut pattern. It may take two or three meetings, or it may take longer. A good plan of organization will help you have a good society, but organization in itself will not make the society. The members themselves mill determine that. They must have enthusiasm, determination, willingness to work, and the affection for the kind of work they are doing. These are the ingredients that make a successful society.

SUMMARY

1. The Group

A small group of people with the same interest in heritage concerns gets together to form a local historical society.

2. Methods

It advertises a founding meeting. It asks for help from:

  • Librarians
  • School teachers
  • Municipal councilors
  • Chamber of Commerce
  • Agricultural Society
  • Women's Institute
  • Art and Craft Associations

3. Reasons

Some reasons for organizing an historical society might be:

  • to write a history book of the community;
  • to collect photographs of the area;
  • to collect artifacts to display a past life-style;
  • to look after an existing collection of artifacts;
  • to interview old-timers, and preserve the tapes;
  • to preserve and restore a specific building;
  • to research the history of the older buildings in the area;
  • to commemorate local events and sites by erecting plaques;
  • to locate and commemorate historic trails;
  • to share the knowledge of the community with a broader number of people in the community;
  • to help local school children with projects related to the history of the community.

Each society chooses those things which it can do according to the wishes and talents of its own members.

4. Draw up by-laws

These by-laws usually cover:

  • Name
  • Purpose
  • Members
  • Officers, duties and term of office
  • Meetings
  • Executive
  • Committees
  • Amending the By-Laws

Page revised: 13 May 2013

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