Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


"Here open to all is the history of this people." This phrase, carved in stone at the entrance to the Nebraska State Historical Society library/ archives building in Lincoln, emphasizes a key characteristic of state and provincial historical organizations in the Great Plains region of the United States and Canada. In contrast to their counterpart institutions in other parts of the country, and especially in the East and South, state and provincial historical organizations in the Middle West and Great Plains developed as publicly supported institutions or government agencies open to all rather than private, members-only organizations.

Beginning in 1854, only eight years after it was first organized, the State Historical Society of Wisconsin became the first statewide historical organization to receive a regular state appropriation. The Minnesota Historical Society, established in 1849, eventually followed the Wisconsin model, as did most state historical organizations in the Great Plains region, including Montana, founded in 1865, Kansas (1875), Nebraska (1878), Oklahoma (1893), South Dakota (1901), and North Dakota (1905). In other Plains states organizational structures may have differed, but the established tradition of public support and open public access remained.

Nearly all of these organizations began as research libraries that published books and journals and held scholarly meetings that sometimes lasted several days. As time passed, they grew and developed into large, multifaceted agencies with statutory authority to operate museums and historic sites, conduct extensive archaeological investigations, hold the state's public record archive, and offer a wide variety of public educational programs for people of all ages. During the second half of the twentieth century these organizations often were designated as the agency responsible for administering the federal historic preservation programs within that state. As a result, many of the state historical societies in the Middle West and Great Plains regions rank among the largest historical organizations in the United States. Annual budgets measured in millions of dollars and staffs of well over 100 employees are typical.

In Canada the provincial museums perform many of the same functions as state historical societies in the United States, but there is usually more emphasis on the development of large-scale museums and publication and archaeological programs. Public archives, historic sites, and historic preservation programs are the responsibility of other units of the provincial or federal Canadian government. The tradition of open public access and strong public financial support, however, is as consistent in Canada as it is in the Great Plains region of the United States.

These state and provincial historical organizations have been preeminent in serving the interests of their entire state or province through the extensive programs and services they provide for every segment of the population, including academic scholars, genealogists, local historians, and students. Of special interest are the journals published by these institutions. Montana: The Magazine of Western History, Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains, Nebraska History, Chronicles of Oklahoma, South Dakota History, and North Dakota History: A Journal of the Northern Plains are among the more popular historical publications available. The historical societies truly are full-service institutions open to all, usually at little or no cost because of the public financial support they receive.

The physical location of many state or provincial historical society buildings adjacent or in close proximity to the state or provincial capitol symbolically reflects the importance of its heritage to that state or province. In several instances, such as in Nebraska, these historical organizations are also near the state's primary institution of higher education. Throughout the Great Plains region of the United States and Canada these state and provincial historical societies are large, complex, multifaceted institutions that rank among the leading historical organizations of both nations.

Lawrence Sommer Nebraska State Historical Society

Alexander, Edward P. "The Rise of American History Museums." In Leadership for the Future, edited by Bryant F. Tolles Jr. Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1991: 5–19.

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