Historic World aims to make history a part of our present and future through an online network of shared, localized content.
In early March, former Illinois Governor Jim Edgar asked a group of historians at the Bishop Hill Heritage Association how they could get younger people excited about their local history. “I immediately wanted to shoot my hand up and say, ‘Here! Here! I know!’” says Brian “Fox” Ellis, who was in attendance that day.
For the past year, Ellis and the team at Historic World have dedicated themselves to the work of bringing the past into the present. Historic World aims to bring history to life through partnerships with local historical societies and online content creation. It hopes to inspire its audience to participate in the creation of localized historical content that can be shared with the world at large. Not only can this information encourage communities to embrace their history, it can also help drive historical tourism.
Making History Accessible
Although Historic World launched only recently, the idea originated at the dawn of the 21st century. The seeds of the organization lie in Historic Peoria, which was created in 2002 by local businessman Jim Thrush, with assistance from Ellis. At that time, the organization relied on a series of articles, created by students at Bradley University, in order to build up a database of locally-focused historical information. In total, nearly 250 detailed pieces were created, telling the history of Peoria and the Illinois River Valley through tales of its people, buildings, landmarks and festivities. But after several years of operation, the site went into hibernation.
For years, Historic Peoria lay dormant, but in early 2012, Ellis decided to restart and refurbish the site, albeit with a slightly different aim. Inspired by the wealth of historical information available in small-town historical societies, he relaunched the site as part of a “profit-for-nonprofit” focused organization, inviting these groups to participate in the creation of new localized websites to modernize, preserve and promote their collections while also linking them together into a larger online network.
“When I was in high school, the other students didn’t find history to be too accessible,” says Lucas Longman, vice president of web development at Historic World. “My primary interest is to help make history accessible to people of all ages.”
Longman, who graduated in 2012 with a history degree from Eureka College, has worked extensively to build websites for Historic World and its partner institutions—which has become one of the key aspects of the organization’s operations. Longman utilizes the open-source template program Joomla to generate sites that are user-friendly, yet sophisticated. He claims the format offers a straightforward way to create a site capable of housing large amounts of information while remaining easy for the layperson to update. It provides a consistent base that can be adapted to the needs of the organization’s partners.
Avenues for Growth
Historic World also works to publicize history in the news and promote the efforts of museums, educators and preservation groups. For the past few months, the organization’s central hub, Historic Illinois, has been aggregating news stories pertaining to the state’s history. This information has ranged from news updates on preservation efforts to features on little-known facets of local history. By sharing these articles, the organization highlights the different facets of Illinois history and how it is part of the daily news.
Additionally, the group has begun to venture into multimedia. Its forthcoming “Historic World Radio” show will begin streaming live on the “World of Storytelling” Internet radio station this spring. Also offered as a free podcast, the show will present history from a first-person perspective through the work of a number of esteemed historical storytellers, as well as in-depth interviews with historians, educators and researchers. It will add a multimedia depth to the organization’s work, providing a wealth of historical information in an easily accessible and entertaining form that can be enjoyed anywhere. Future guests include Kathryn Harris from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, musician Mike Finders and storyteller Jim “Two Crows” Wallen.
Several further expansions are planned for the near-future as well. With Historic Peoria and Historic Illinois already established, the group is launching Historic United States—a new site to serve as a central point for future partnerships with out-of-state organizations by providing connections to a series of state websites alongside history-related news from all over the country. According to Longman, this initiative is intended to help cast a wider net and bring the organization’s mission to a larger audience. “The Historic United States site will continue to collect and preserve historical information from local sites,” notes Ellis, “while also striving to create a nationwide network for these sites to share their research and information.”
Another avenue being pursued includes creating a “One Room Schoolhouse,” which, when completed, will synthesize much of the historic information into lesson plans and interactive media. The organization will directly assist its partner institutions by offering to help with museum exhibition development, cataloging and digitization. These planned developments are designed to insure that Historic United States’ message of preservation and promotion has as much of a presence in the real world as it does in the digital realm.
From Campfire to Kindle
“History is full of great stories—how we tell these stories makes all the difference,” says Ellis. “One hundred years ago, it would have been around a campfire. Today, it’s around a Kindle.” Historic United States aims to prove that local history does not have to lie dormant in the rust and dust of aging artifacts and documents. Instead, they hope to show that history can be a living, breathing thing, something that can educate and inspire, entertain and inform. In doing so, they plan to lift local history out of the past and make it an important part of our shared present and future. iBi
Historic World is built on a profit-for-nonprofit model, with the goal of helping small museums, historical societies and similar organizations increase their membership, donations, grants and sponsors. For more information, visit historicunitedstates.com or historicillinois.com.