Public History as It Happens: Grant Writing for a Historical Society (Part 1)

Graduate students in public history at Loyola University recently launched “The Public History Lab,” an initiative to increase community interaction and service. The PHL offered to the nearby Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society volunteer student labor and advice ranging from collections management to membership development and programming. One area of focus is grant writing. This series of posts follows the process of beginning a grant application from scratch. And hopefully concludes with news of success!

Targeting a Grant

As Grant Project Coordinator, my first task was to identify some feasible grants for RPWRHS. Factors for this feasibility include: relevance to the institution, realistic expectations for submitting a competitive application, and the extensiveness of an application in relation to our available labor. I knew, generally, of collection assessment grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Unfortunately the deadline had not only passed, but it also appeared that RPWRHS may not qualify as primarily a “museum.” But only a bit more searching led to the National Endowment for the Humanities-funded “Preservation Assistance Grant for Smaller Institution.”

The grant title alone held promise. The program is incredibly flexible, allowing up to $6,000 for conservation/preservation projects ranging from general assessments to plans for specific collections to staff preservation training. Since RPWRHS collections are in the—-well…—-rather ‘early’ stages of arrangement, preservation-worthy housing, and storage, I opted for the use of funds for an assessment and preservation plan from a professional consultant.

Our hope is to create a professional assessment and preservation plan that can serve as a foundation of ongoing fundraising and planning efforts for the sustainable care of the archival and artifact collections.

Upon this general search for grants, I created a Google Doc informational sheet that chronologically lists other potential grants for RPWRHS. These targets include innovative initiatives (a Kickstarter campaign for a specific exhibit or program) to the grandiose (a major NEH grant for a permanent exhibit or outdoor interpretive installations throughout the community).

Oh, I forgot to add that the DEADLINE IS MAY 1!

Assembling the Team

The Public History Lab has at its disposal almost 20 graduate students who have indicated a desire to work with RPWRHS. I asked Dan Ott, charter Public History Lab member and recent inductee to the RPWRHS Board of Directors, to disseminate a call for volunteers to work on portions of the NEH grant. Dan included a link to the grant application guidelines, so that everyone knew what they would be signing up for. My hope is to have a team of four or five folks collaboratively tackle the application, with each person responsible for composing a particular section of the application .

Dan and I reminded the potential volunteers that grant writing is a much sought-after skill in the public history world, and one that grad students rarely have a chance to practice.

Two valiant grad students immediately stepped forward, and I expect one or two others to be of at least partial assistance. We will also rely upon occasional advice from Katie Macica, Loyola PhD student, Public History Lab/RPWRHS collections expert, and RPWRHS Board member.

Assigning Duties

I created a dedicated Google Doc for the grant application, and pasted into it the headings and general instructions for each section. Some of these sections are basic and will require only a minimal amount of work from one person. Others, most notably the project description (5 single-spaced pages), will need two or three volunteers hammering away. I put my name next to a few of the sections, and shared the document with my teammates.

And reminded them of the deadline.

Challenges Thus Far

So far the biggest challenge was finding a feasible and relevant grant. I had just enough familiarity with the RPWRHS collections to be pulled towards a conservation grant. Luckily, a Loyola alum at another small historical society had recently used grant money for a collections assessment, and she has been very helpful with general advice. Needless to say, the pressure from a short deadline is an ongoing challenge. All those involved in the application have academic duties, and April is the cruelest month for students, graduate assistants, and those trying to complete dissertation proposals or chapters before the end of the academic year.

Next: Addressing the RPWRHS Collections Committee, recruiting a consultant,  and drafting the basics

 Cross-posted at 


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