NDIL Presentation Title: Creating a History Program for Your Organization

Recap: Creating a History Program For Your Organization

On October 1, 2019, Gretchen Van Dam, CALL member and Northern District of Illinois Court Historical Association Vice President and Archivist gave a presentation on the topic, “Creating a History Program for Your Organization: Lessons Learned from the Northern District of Illinois Court Historical Association.” The event took place at the Northern District of Illinois Court History Museum on the 21st floor of the Everett McKinley Dirksen U.S.  Courthouse.

Find an overview of the tour and questions that can guide you through creating a historical organization in this recap from our CALL Mentorship & Leadership Development Committee.

Museum Tour for CALL Members

Following the talk, which offered invaluable advice for information professionals from a range of organizations, Gretchen led the assembled CALL members on an informal tour of the museum, pointing out historical details and regaling the attendees with anecdotes about the collection. The attendees, from government, firm, and academic law libraries, represented a broad cross section of CALL.

Presentation by Gretchen Van Dam

History of the NDIL Historical Association

Gretchen’s presentation shared insights into the development of the Northern District of Illinois Court Historical Association and offered practical tips and guidance for anyone considering starting a historical association. She began by tracing the roots of the Association back to 1991, when informal lunchtime gatherings to talk about the Court’s history served as the genesis of the present-day Association.

Consisting of a small number of people with a personal interest in the subject, including a librarian, the group grappled with a wide range of issues as they embarked on their journey to become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the history of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

Gretchen then led attendees through a series of questions to consider and tips to keep in mind when going through the process of creating and running an historical association, based on the organization’s experiences.

Questions to help start a History Program

  • Do you want to play a role in this organization?
  • Is someone else already doing this?
  • Do you want to be a “Friends of” group? A partner? A development or alumni organization?
  • Why do you want a formal setup?
  • Is structure/formality needed to keep history from being lost?
    • If so, then organize.

Planning for a History Program:

Mission statement: What is your purpose?

Collection development policy

What is your organization’s focus? In the case of the Northern District of Illinois Court Historical Society, the focus was on the people, places, and cases of the federal court of the N.D. Illinois

The Northern District of Illinois Court Historical Society decided to start small, with photos, documents, oral histories, because it had a collection to begin with.

For collection development, it’s important to have a clear definition of your purpose from the beginning, to define what you will and will not be able to do, collect, etc.

    • Do you already have a collection of items?
    • Are you a photograph and storytelling museum, or an artifact museum?
    • Are you going to collect documents? Memorabilia? Accept gifts?
        • Is someone, such as a university or a museum, already doing this?
    • What do you do when someone gives you an item that you do not want to collect?
      • What would you do with the artifact if you accept it? What would happen to the artifact if you do not accept it?
      • Instead, do you want to help people to locate other places for their materials?

As an example, The Northern District of Illinois Court Historical Society had to answer the question, “What do you do when someone gives you a very large bronze eagle? ”

Can/do you want to be an archive? 

After considering your collection development policies, it’s important to have an archival plan for any items you collection.

    • If yes, you would need a place to put the items
    • Special handling
    • Temperature control
    •  Do you have an infrastructure already in place (digitization, storage, access, staffing)?
      • If not, do you have funding for that?
    • Copyright issues?
    • Space? Type of space? Storage requirements?
    • Funding for special materials?
Record/save your history as it happens

A key tip: watch the trash! When you take items out of the trash, show them to people to get as much information as you can about them:

    • Record/save information on the documents – the event, date, who is in the photograph, or example. This information may be significant or unavailable in the future
    • Do not write on labels that you then affix to the item; the adhesive may dry up over time, and the labels may fall off, thus losing valuable identifying information. Instead, use a #2 Ticonderoga pencil or other archival supply
    • Do not assume; check your facts

Court reporter tapes and old machines from the 1940s and 1950s have been popular with high school students! Other unusual items in their collection: Postcards and china, silver spoons from a private collection.

Organizing a History Program

There are legal and financial implications to how you organize your group. If people give you items, they expect to be given tax letters for their donations.  The Historical Association had to create a separate organization from the court because judges & court staff can’t fund raise.

    • 501(c)(3)?
      • If 501(c)(3), need to come up with bylaws, structure, regular meetings
    • Charitable foundation?
    • Friends group?
    • Committee?


There were a number of logistical considerations for meetings. They suggested putting a provision in your bylaws about virtual meetings and virtual votes, as well as for resources for photocopies of agenda for meetings. Consider allowing votes by email and skype meetings, because it is really difficult to get everyone in the same room at the same time.

  • When and where? 
  • Funds to support the meetings? 
  • Staff to organize meetings? 
  • Other support, as needed? 

Money – who will fund the organization?

Reach out to everyone in your organization for collection donations. You never know who has stuff in their cabinets or stories to share.

Announcing a History Program

They offered several easy ways to start your organization and promote public access, from Anniversaries/milestones of your organization to special events.

Date Examples:

  • 1st African American district court judge in the U.S. 
  • Law firm’s founding day
  • First day of women starting in your law school

Event Examples:

  • Lectures and author signings
  • Special Exhibits
  • Displays

Promoting a History Program

Once your history program is up and running, then you want to promote public access. They offered several examples – each link below goes to pages on their NDIL website http://ilndhistory.org/:

Example: Northern District of Illinois Court Historical Society hosted a Bicentennial event at Harold Washington Library, in the Winter Garden

Additional marketing opportunities

With 2019 marking the bicentennial of federal courts in Illinois, they had banners in Everett McKinley Dirksen U.S.  Courthouse lobby and on light poles in the Loop:

The event was co-sponsored by CALL’s Mentorship & Leadership Development Committee, Continuing Education Committee, and Government Relations Committee.

The Northern District of Illinois Court Historical Association can be reached on the web at: Ilndhistory.org