(We've moved to: http://christinesleeter.org/historical-societies)
Historical societies are wonderful resources for information about the historical contexts in which your ancestors lived. There are historical societies (or other history centers) at the state, county, and city levels. The easiest way to locate those relevant to your work is online.
For example, I live in California. The state has a large historical society located in San Francisco that houses extensive collections of material including maps, photos, records, books, art work, and thematic collections (such as the history of the Golden Gate Bridge). Much is available for browsing on its website; the society also publishes several materials including a newsletter. At the county level is the Monterey County Historical Society which, in addition to housing collections of local historical records, also manages several historical buildings and monuments.
You probably won’t find information about your ancestors per se in at historical society, but you may well find a wealth of information that tells you something about how they lived. For example, my mother’s mother was born in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. On a visit to Colorado, I wanted to find out more about where she was born and spent her early childhood years. Online I located Yampa Valley Historical Information, which directed me to several small facilities, including Steamboat Springs’ history center. In the back of my mind, I was hoping to find information about my ancestral family there. Although the center did have files about some families (including newspaper clippings and other documents), there was none about my family. However, I browsed maps, photos, descriptions of the local economy, and stories from the late 1800s, when my grandmother was born. I also photocopied a description of the forced removal of the Ute Indians from the area, written by a white person whose views reflected the overt racism of that time.
The California Historical Society recently launched a very interesting global crowd sourcing project called
Historypin. The idea is that a good deal of historical material is lodged not in museums or historical societies, but in boxes of old family photos, old post cards, and old letters. Anyone can contribute material, and anyone can access what is there. While it’s highly unlikely that you will find your ancestors, this growing website will provide insights into historical contextual material from grassroots perspectives.
To locate material on Historypin, you can 1) search by geographical location anywhere in the world (and you can narrow down by time span), 2) browse collections (such as “Louisville’s Past,” or “Streetcars, Busses and Trams”), or 3) browse tours (such as a tour of historical stores of New York). The collections and tours were all created by people whose Historypin pages you can visit.
And you can add to Historypin. The process is quite simple. After creating your account (your channel, the term used on the website), use the “Pin Something” button, and just follow the directions for uploading, labeling, and locating the item geographically. Items that can be pinned to the map include photos, sound files, and movie files. In the process of labeling and locating the item, you can also write information about the item, such as who is in a photograph, where it was taken, or anything else you know about it. As you get into pinning, you can create a collection or a tour for other history browsers.
Excuse me now, while I go pin some old scanned photos from my grandparents’ generation. Thank you, California Historical Society!