Preserving Your History

When you are in the midst of managing a women’s bar association, it is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day details and forget that you are creating history.  The people who are your associations’ leaders, the programs you undertake, the issues and concerns on the mind of your membership: all are worthy of noting and remembering.  Having a reliable way of looking back will be helpful in any number of ways, some of which you may not anticipate for years, some which will be obvious almost immediately.  (What was our membership 11 years ago?  Who designed our logo?  Who was our seventh president?)

Maintaining at least a basic outline of an organization’s history is essential.  It’s great to know when the association was incorporated, who some of the founders were and where they met.  But it is the more mundane, ongoing history of your association that is often overlooked or dismissed as being unimportant.  Assumptions are made:  “Our president will have that in her files.”  “Our executive director keeps that.”  “The committee chair will have information from last year’s event.”  Even if those assumptions are correct, is there an easy way to retrieve the information?  Does each individual have her own retention policy?   At a minimum, confirm responsibilities and intentions.

Some women’s bar associations have history committees.  If your women’s bar doesn’t have such a committee, consider creating one. If you’re not ready to create a commitee, designate one individual as informal historian.  The task need not be onerous.  At its most basic, history can be maintained in a cardboard box labeled by year.  Toss in copies of newsletters, program fliers and any directories or annual reports.  Resumes of board members can provide useful information in future years.  Ensure that minutes are being carefully maintained by the secretary or add a copy of the approved minutes to your history box.  If the task is to be taken over by another individual at the end of the year, make sure that a careful transition is made, lest a new staff member think “we don’t need this old box full of a jumble of things from two years ago when my boss was on that board.”

Rapid technological advances have made keeping track of an organization’s history both easier and more challenging.  It’s important to keep transitioning to current media so that carefully preserved information is not lost.   VHS tapes of the 1984 awards dinner should be transitioned to DVDs or mp3s in preparation for transfer in a few years to whatever medium is then current.  Having a floppy disc of old program files is now almost useless.  Use technology to make the archives both more accessible and more robust by making them available in numerous locations.  If you take photos at an event, post some on your website or Facebook page, and give CDs or copies in other formats to whomever you think will be most likely to value them.

Consider creating a historical newsletter archive on line, as was done by Women Lawyers of Alameda County. Even if the most recent newsletters are not posted, it is a way of preserving organizational history.  Or list historical leadership on your website, as is done by the Colorado Women’s Bar Association, with a list of past presidents.   Create a timeline of significant events, as was done by Minnesota Women Lawyers. Ask former presidents to reflect on the events of their presidential year.

From time to time, do a history “roundup.”  Put out a call to long-time members to send copies or the original of programs or photos they may have tucked away.  Feature these in ways which encourage others to look through their own files.

Don’t be overwhelmed by the task:  Take whatever small steps are manageable to preserve the historical record of tomorrow.