Saving Iowa history, one birthday at a time

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Happy birthday, Iowa history! Last month marked the 160th anniversary of the establishment of the State Historical Society of Iowa by our state legislature. Don’t look for a parade or expect a cake but attention should be paid to this singular act.

It was little more than a decade after Iowa achieved statehood that the first generation of Iowa pioneers established a public agency to collect and preserve the legacy of what it means to be an Iowan. It is our responsibility to carry this responsibility forward.

Some Iowans are skeptical that precious tax dollars should be used to support Iowa history. Given the challenges facing our state in the new legislative session, why should anyone care about old stuff in a clunky building at the corner of Sixth and Locust in Des Moines? And what about the building here in Iowa City and all those historic properties located across the state?

These are valid questions. Many Iowans are too perplexed by the here and now to care much about the past. Sure it’s great to be an Iowan, but they would leave it to others to protect the legacy of their ancestors.

Not everyone agrees with that assessment, of course. In fact, there have been efforts to save our past from the ravages of benign neglect. For example, a loose coalition of archivists, historians, genealogists and history buffs have worked tirelessly to convince the governor and the general assembly to provide the funds to repair leaky roofs and rehire archivists and curators to protect our precious heritage.

The response has been vigorous — but not in a good way. Rather than supporting the recommendations of history professionals, the governor and SHSI administrators proposed to “renovate” the Des Moines building and further threaten fragile collections. Many observers saw this as full speed — in reverse. There was relief when the SHSI plan did not make it through the last legislative session.

And not all the news is depressing. After years of declining budgets and cutbacks on hours of access to collections, SHSI administrators recently restored some access to the research collection in both Des Moines and Iowa City. SHSI also announced a plan to microfilm and digitize its substantial backlog of priceless local newspapers. Those are glimmers of hope to be sure.

But we have a long way to go. There’s no budget to acquire books, journals, or newspapers that are the life blood of any historical society. There are precious few dollars to employ staff to catalog documents and no funds to treat, repair and clean fragile items that are crumbling on the shelves. It would not be unfair to refer to the current state of affairs as benign neglect.

Compounding these challenges are dire economic projections that will require SHSI to cut hundreds of thousands of dollars from budget levels not seen since the Great Depression. It‘s hard to determine how these cuts can be absorbed without further endangering the collections. Iowa history may be back in peril by the end of the 2017 legislative session.

As anniversaries come and go, this isn’t a big one. And yet, it is worth your time to take a moment and appreciate the fact that our ancestors thought enough of our land and our culture to protect and preserve the documents of that achievement.

We should not — we cannot — abandon that legacy because of short-term economic shortfalls. Ask your legislators to sit at their desks in the statehouse and listen to the echoes of those who came before them. Those voices call out for the preservation of Iowa’s history. They are telling us all — legislators and citizens alike — to protect the past to insure the future.

• Timothy Walch is a member of the Iowa Historical Records Advisory Board and was twice elected to the board of trustees of the State Historical Society of Iowa. Comments: Twalch47@gmail.com

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