Iowa History is at Risk

If you live in Iowa, have Iowa ancestry, or have any other interest in Iowa history, you will want to be aware of a situation described by Tyler Priest in an article in the Des Moines Register. Priest writes:

“The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs has mismanaged the [Historical Society of Iowa] for years, but recently the situation has become dire. Because of budget austerity and shifting priorities, public service hours at both the Iowa City and Des Moines research centers have been reduced to only three days a week. The source of the problem is that DCA leaders have diverted scarce funds away from hiring archivists, librarians and catalogers, in favor of administrators, public relations managers, and marketers who lack the training and commitment to guarantee the society’s longstanding mission ‘as a trustee of Iowa’s historical legacy.'”

Tyler Priest then goes on to describe the physical condition of the collections:

“Materials go unprocessed because the few staff members who remain can do little more than open the doors and answer email. In 2009, the society suspended the longstanding and popular program to microfilm local newspapers and later rebuffed $250,000 in proposed state funding to ease the backlog. Priceless documents and photographs are deteriorating because DCA leadership has not employed a conservator to stabilize them. Acquisitions have ceased, even though history has not. Lip service is paid to digitizing records, but this would require a large increase in staff and funds. Iowans are steadily losing their history, county by county, community by community, page by page.”

You can read this and a lot more in Tyler Priest’s article at

My thanks to newsletter reader Rebecca Christensen for telling me about this article.


Corrupt politicians and administration’s mismanagement is in all states and the public needs to step up and get them out of office


Politicians need to know that genealogists (professional and amateur) do vote!


    They’ll learn that if genealogists of Iowa band together, stir up the populace, and kick the offending enablers out of office. This rarely happens, but it *could* with a lot of work and renewed dedication.


We should press for a special commission to take a comprehensive look at historiography in all of its form in the state and how best to address them along institutional lines, including educational links to public schools (History Day) and the related university programs. Such an investigation should look at regional examples but particularly the Minnesota State Historical Society and its explosive level of public involvement, it’s cutting-edge historical work and its broad range of publications (DCA/SHSI is down to just one). The role of genealogy should also be addressed as a key constituency within the overall historical public mix.


As a professional genealogist in Iowa…this is extremely frustrating! Our governor and lawmakers would burn the historical building down if it saved them a buck. They won’t even take care of education in our state which is resulting in huge budget cuts for small schools.


Remember we hired a republican governor who is determined to push Iowa back to the 1800’s.


    And “we” kept hiring him over and over and over until he reached the status of longest serving governor in history. What a feat.


There are probably hundreds of experienced genealogists living in Iowa. If a call were put out to them, I’d bet many would willingly volunteer to step in to save history and precious records.


    They might do better writing letters, walking blocks and stirring up voters. Volunteers doing necessary work for free is a band-aid at best. And does nothing to help the public see that no taxes for rich people affect them in so many negative ways.


The Iowa Genealogical Society (which is right across the street from the State Historical Library in Des Moines) is also looking into this, from what I understand.


David Paul Davenport March 10, 2016 at 1:37 pm

Volunteers could certainly keep the doors open, but professional archivists are the key to accessioning and curating collections. What is clearly needed is administrators who are trained professional historians and archivists, and not political hacks. It is shameful that people without professional degrees are hired even as “publicists.” Hiring them as administrators is insulting to the public who expect and deserve the highest quality service money can buy and to the people who have the professional training but are overlooked because they haven’t greased the right palms.


Do they know how many people are researching their families and contributing to our nation’s knowledge of our history? They’d better wake up.


Who might we most effectively write to about this? A letter/email campaign might help, and there are plenty of us out here willing to join in.


An economic argument usually works better than anything else. Tell these DCA jerks that genealogy and historical records create TOURISM — people who visit Iowa and spend money, to find cemeteries, visit courthouses, do library research, etc. I don’t know how to quantify the numbers. It would be great if this could be done on a national level, perhaps by one of the national societies developing a Survey Monkey that state and local societies could ask their members to take, revealing how much people spend on research trips per year. Then the data could be used in other states as well, to demonstrate the economic value of keeping historical information preserved AND AVAILABLE to those who want to come visit.


Sounds like our national government today: too many chiefs and not enough Indians. Pay all those people (who probably happen to know someone in office?) to just sit around but can’t afford the people who know what needs to be done and how to do it, and will do it.


Jacqueline Wilson March 15, 2016 at 6:35 pm

I shared this on twitter and facebook. I am willing to write letters/emails, but they may not listen to me – I live in Illinois! However, I did a lot of research back in 1996-1997 and just loved the set up just the way it was then.


Sounds to me like they want to create outdoor space that they will rent out for events. There are plenty of places in Des Moines to have ‘coctail parties’ They don’t need to compromise the state historical society library collection and facilities.


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