We live in a society where news is entertainment … more concerned with what will grab attention than with what is truth. Truth is whatever feels right or sounds impressive, not what’s factually accurate. Comedian Stephen Colbert coined a term for this phenomenon: Truthiness.
American society has been overcome by a gale of truthiness due to a number of factors. News has become entertainment because media sources are desperate to stay financially viable. Meanwhile, those pesky investigative reporters, who cost money to keep on staff, have been cut. Politicians, ever mindful of election cycles, prefer to speak in sound bites and rouse people with emotion so as to maintain their positions. Citizens don’t demand transparency from leaders or care to do the work necessary to gauge whether they are getting the facts from these sources. It’s easier to believe what we’re being told and go about our daily lives without question. We’re more than happy to pass along the latest infotainment, a task that has been made exceedingly easy with the internet. What is that saying about a lie making it around the world before the truth gets its boots on? (http://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/07/13/truth/)
Because of the emotion involved in truthiness, people often become irate when their truthiness is called into question. Recently, the Morrison County Historical Society (MCHS) pulled out of a project that planned to promote local history based on truthiness. (The history was factually incorrect in multiple ways and we were not given time to correct it.) For speaking up, MCHS was challenged on its ability to provide local history. It’s actually a good question: What makes MCHS a credible source of Morrison County history? How do you know you can trust what MCHS says about the area’s history?
First and foremost, the Society, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization, is devoted to county history through its mission. The Society filed its Articles of Incorporation with Morrison County’s Register of Deeds Fred Larson on September 15, 1936. The articles state that the Society’s “general purpose is educational, social and scientific, its especial object being the discovery, preservation and dissemination of knowledge about the history of Morrison County and the State of Minnesota, the collection of material of every kind relative thereto, the providing, erecting, owning, leasing, furnishing and managing any buildings, hall, or apartments for its own use, the preservation and marking of historical buildings, places, and trails, and that its plan of operation is to carry out said purposes by the means commonly used by like historical societies.” (MCHS Certificate of Incorporation, September 15, 1936)
The articles were revised over the years, with the mission remaining the same but its language being simplified: “The general purpose of this corporation (hereinafter called Society) is educational, social and civic in discovery, preservation and dissemination of historical knowledge, especially about, but not restricted to, historic knowledge of Morrison County and Minnesota.” (MCHS Revised Articles of Incorporation, August 29, 1998)
In short, Morrison County history is what we do.
We could concentrate all of our activities on the discovery and preservation portions of that mission and not know one fig about Morrison County history … just put stuff in acid-free boxes and forget about it. But then we would not be living up to the “dissemination” part of our mission. In order to share that history widely, we have to delve into the Society’s collections and understand what we have. We have to be able to retrieve documents, photos, and artifacts upon request.
Between the four people on staff at the Society, there are 100 years of experience in finding answers to local history questions from our collections. Just providing this basic level of service to researchers is enough to make some of that history stick with us, but we’re not satisfied with a basic level of service. Staff members take their daily work with the collections into uncharted territory, compiling folders and boxes on particular subjects and turning this investigation into well-researched articles, books, blog posts, and programs about Morrison County’s history.
But how do you know whether we’re telling the truth? Look to the citations.
Not only is citing sources standard practice when writing articles based on history, citations provide readers with a map they can follow to see whether MCHS has properly quoted its sources or drawn logical conclusions. We are fastidious about citations, both for the public good and so that we can find the information again. You see, for as long as the staff has been working for the Society, we don’t know everything there is to know about county history. In fact, the longer we work here, the more we realize we’ll never know or remember it all. (That’s why we write history down.) And, in the spirit of transparency that should accompany all nonprofit organizations, we are honest about what we don’t know.
Museums in general are afforded a large degree of trustworthiness by the public. To maintain the public’s trust, we take accuracy and honesty seriously in our history. That does not mean that it’s the Society’s job to correct local history produced by others (a never-ending job, especially with the internet). It does mean that if MCHS signs on to assist with a project, we will insist that the history presented is accurate. After all, it’s the Society’s integrity that’s at stake.
This article was originally published in the Morrison County Historical Society’s newsletter, Volume 28, Number 2, 2015.