About The Author

David Grabitske

David Grabitske is the manager of outreach services at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The Cokato Museum & Historical Society debuted its web site in the late summer of 1997.  At the time, and to the best of our knowledge, only three other museums in the state had a presence on the web.  A culmination of what seemed like months of planning, this event was met with little fanfare, other than a small article in the museum’s quarterly newsletter.  The local newspaper did not even provide coverage. During our discussions about creating a web site, I made the comment: “Within ten years, the Internet will be the preferred method of information retrieval for a large chunk of the populace.”  Needless to say, I was a little off on that estimate.


Since that humble unveiling, it should come as no surprise that Internet has radically transformed how historical organizations can and should conduct business.  For the Cokato Museum, those changes can be seen in numerous ways. 


One is in handling genealogy requests.  Since we are not the county museum, we were not typically the “first call” people made.  But with a presence on the web, genealogists can find us quite easily.  With our list of available resources, they can decide if we can assist them, and send an e-mail query.  Our research numbers have tripled since 2000, due almost exclusively to the web site.


Another item is providing general historical information about our community.  From a simple “Quick Facts” sheet, to our Lost Cokato series, and articles from our newsletter and the local newspaper, interested persons can learn a great deal about Cokato’s history from the comfort of their own home.  Those who seek further information can easily contact us.


Membership services are another area of benefit.  Early on we utilized email to contact members about upcoming events and other items of interest.  Unfortunately, the proliferation of spam forced us to curtail that avenue.  Now we encourage members to visit our News & Upcoming Events section of the web site, which is updated weekly or as needed.


A list of available publications, membership forms, and other information helps keep the activities of our organization in full view of not just our membership, but all who choose to view our page.


Social networking sites are quickly becoming another avenue by which museums can further advance name recognition.  Pick a network, and you can find organizations which have established a presence there in one form or another.


The negative side, and of course there always is one, can be found in the staff time needed to maintain these digital presences.  With so many organizations struggling to maintain current staffing levels, an honest conversation about time management must take place before embarking on these ventures.  Setting up that initial presence is easy.  Devoting time on a consistent basis for site maintenance can be the difficult part.


The obvious question remains then: what will the future bring for museums as the digital age progresses.  Considering how rapidity by which the technology had advanced, one can only guess at the next directions.  With barely over a decade having passed since museums made their initial forays into the digital universe, many of us in the field are anxious to see those new directions, and to determine if they will be beneficial to the advancement of our mission.


Mike Worcester

Cokato Historical Society


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3 Responses to Evolution of Local History Websites

  1. Mary Warner says:

    Thanks for this history of the Cokato Historical Society’s website, Mike. It shows how truly historical movements can happen without many of us realizing it, plus how quickly the way we do business can change.

    The Morrison County Historical Society’s website went live in 2002, five years after Cokato’s, which is an eternity in internet time. (We did a major overhaul of the site in 2006 & are getting ready to do so again.) The biggest fear we had at the time was that we would be giving away the store, so to speak, by putting too much information online. Who would ever want to come visit the museum if we gave it all away? How would we financially support our mission if everything was available online for free?

    We’ve learned that this was a baseless fear. Having a web presence actually made people more likely to want to visit. Many who walk through our doors will tell us they’ve already seen the website when we bring up the topic. Also, what we have online (over 100 history articles and a blog loaded with historical references) tends to draw in researchers who wouldn’t have otherwise known we were here.

    Yesterday, in fact, a researcher contacted me about a relative lost to his family – lost until he Googled the relative’s name and landed on our website. He called this his “Rosetta Stone moment.” While much of our county’s history might be considered niche (i.e. only a limited number of people will be interested in any given topic), the fact that we can reach those searching the niche is both amazing and rewarding.

    Now that we’re online, I can’t imagine returning to the pre-internet days.


  2. Jon Voss says:

    Good article, thanks for the perspective. Very interesting point I think about staff resources. I have to think there has got be a way to develop tools to make it easier to share archives online and tap into social networking elements of the web, so that each local history website doesn’t have to build their own solutions. We’ve seen some of that with flickr commons, and we are looking hard at this at lookbackmaps.net.


  3. Mike Worcester says:

    In regards the proliferation of Facebook pages for museums and related organizations, the Alliance web site has as complete a list as could be assembled of those pages. T.y. to DG for having linked to so many of them already on his profile 🙂



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