Serving History in a Changing World: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania in the Twentieth Century

By Sally F. Griffith. Philadelphia: Historical Society of Philadelphia. Distributed by the University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. x, 539 pp. Illustrations. Bibliography. Index. $59.95. ISBN 0-910732-27-2.


Review essay published in American Archivist (Vol. 65, No.1, Spring/Summer 2002)


The Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), founded in Philadelphia in 1825, is one of the premier research institutions in the United States, with unparalleled collections of manuscripts, books, pamphlets, maps, and, for most of its 175-year history, an equally impressive collection of art and artifacts. Yet the HSP has struggled in the past century, both financially and philosophically. In Serving History in a Changing World, Sally F. Griffith chronicles this esteemed organization, joining the recent trend in publishing the histories of the independent historical societies founded on the East Coast in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries.

Serving History is the story of competing constituencies and the rise and fall of each over the course of the Society's existence. "From the beginning there had been controversy even within the small group of founders over what kind of institution it ought to be" (p. 58). At the center of the story are the competing interests of the museum and the library, a fundamental dilemma faced by many similar institutions, perhaps most notably the New-York Historical Society. The question of who is allowed to do historỹacademic historians or a general public interested in historỹhas also held a central place in the Society's search for identity. Among the other themes discussed throughout the book are the professionalization of the library, museum, and archival fields; the inadequacies of the Society's building, including space and security problems; and questions surrounding the appropriate role of the director and board members, including the issue of whether those who serve should be drawn primarily from Philadelphia's elite, or if individuals with a more business-oriented approach to institutional management should be recruited. In short, the HSP has struggled with what Griffith calls "a fundamental problem of identity" (p. 301).

In his preface, Glenn Porter, director of the Hagley Museum and Library and former president of the Independent Research Libraries Association establishes the tone for the book by placing it in the context of other histories that have come before it, most notably Kevin M. Guthrie's The New-York Historical Society: Lessons from One Nonprofit's Long Struggle for Survival (1996). Porter congratulates Susan Stitt, HSP's president from 1990 through 1998, for encouraging publication of a frank and candid analysis of the organization's difficulties and the successes achieved in spite of them. Commissioning Griffith, a professional historian, to write a history of the HSP that is not merely self-congratulation was just one of many bold and controversial decisions Stitt made during her tenure. The result is a complex story of an institution faced with increasing, and often conflicting, demands which have often "far outpaced institutional resources" (p. 2).

Although it was not published until 1940, HSP president Hampton L. Carson's two-volume History of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania chronicled the organization's first century. As a result, Griffith devotes only one chapter to those years, choosing instead to focus her analysis on the next seventy-five. Griffith spends the next several chapters discussing the ups and downs of the Society through the first two-thirds of the century. By the end of the 1920s, the Society had reached the end of its period as a gentlemen's club and suffered financially with the rest of the nation through the Great Depression. The middle decades again saw the Society as it attempted, at times, successfully, to bridge the gap between its various constituencies, most notably the academic historians and a wider public audience heavily represented by genealogists, who were seen as an important source of financial support.

Despite these minor highs and lows, however, the Society remained relatively stable, although underfunded for the range of activities it sought to provide. It was not until the years surrounding the celebration of the United States Bicentennial that the HSP began to reach a crisis point. Referring to this period as the "Bicentennial binge and hangover," Griffith describes how the plans for a major renovation to enlarge the exhibition space for the celebration called the institutional mission into question once again. The tension among board members, staff, and the director was further exacerbated when public funds that the Society counted on did not materialize. On an "act of faith" that the fundraising activities would cover the deficit, the Society moved forward with its renovation plans. The result was an even greater budget shortfall and an enlarged exhibition space that required the staff to fill it on a scale that placed additional burdens on an already overburdened workforce.

The financial difficulties deepened in the 1980s as that decade's economic downturn affected the income on investments and HSP's ability to raise funds. Plans for a permanent large-scale exhibition placed museum professionals at odds with a well-known historian serving as guest curator, while a long-range planning process resulted in increased dissension over the Society's mission. When the Society searched for a new director in 1984, Peter Parker, the acting director, explained the difficulty. The search committee, he wrote, would need to decide "what it is the new director is to direct. Is this a library, a museum, or a facility that combines both?" (p. 344).

When Susan Stitt was appointed president (as the office of director had been renamed) in 1990, she inherited an organization in deep financial trouble. After concerted efforts to control the downward spiral with cutbacks and other measures failed, Stitt proposed a controversial solution: the HSP should focus its energies on being a research library, not a museum. Her original plan involved the formation of a new museum in Philadelphia that would house and display materials from many of the city's cultural institutions. When the museum did not materialize, she proposed the deaccessioning of the Society's museum collection to allow the HSP to function to its full potential as a research library.

Deaccessioning was not a new idea at HSP; it had been discussed, in the early 1970s and again after the Bicentennial, as a way to increase the Society's endowment. But Stitt's solution was different. While some of the items might be sold, the majority would be given to another institution, which would allow the HSP to focus on its core operation: the library. In Stitt's opinion, HSP's low visibility, location, and limited assets meant that it would have to refocus if it were to survive. (Ironically, members of the library staff had questioned Stitt's appointment, fearing that her background as a museum professional would result in an emphasis on the museum at the expense of the library.) After an extremely contentious debate among staff and officers (leading to the resignation of several board members) and widespread negative publicity (which finally gave the Society the public it had always craved, albeit a negative one), the board approved the plan in 1994. Although the joint history museum never materialized, under the direction of new president David Moltke-Hansen, HSP did reach an agreement with the Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia in 1999 to transfer its art and artifacts. In late 2001, HSP continued to focus on the research library with the announcement that it would merge with the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies to bring together two of Philadelphia's most important research collections. Only time will tell what this will mean to the Society and its newly refocused mission.

Griffith concludes with an epilogue that places the HSP within the context of professional history, library, and museum administration and compares it with its counterparts in New York, Massachusetts, and elsewhere. Although she does not state so outright, Griffith seems to conclude that Stitt's decision to focus as a library was the right one.

Using HSP's institutional records, personal papers, and extensive oral history interviews with officers and staff, Griffith does an exemplary job of synthesizing the details of the day-to-day operations into clear phases of the institution's history and presents them within the context of trends in public history, libraries, and museums. She chronicles the events as they unfolded without criticism or defense. The result is an extremely well researched work that appears neither judgmental nor sugarcoated, despite the fact that it was commissioned and published by the HSP. Although the book is thoroughly indexed, it is in great need of an appendix listing the officers and board members over the institution's long history. This is essential for anyone trying to keep up with the multitude of changing players; it would also enhance the book's value as a reference source.

Like Kevin Guthrie's history of the New-York Historical Society, Serving History makes an excellent case study for anyone interested in non-profit cultural institutions, and particularly for archival and library professionals and students working in these areas. It should also be a "must read" for every officer and board member who has fiduciary responsibilities at similar institutions.

Brenda M. Lawson
Massachusetts Historical Society