New Idea: Grand Forks Community History Project

As readers of this blog know, I’ve gradually been moving into community and local history. It began when I wrote a history of our department for the University’s 125th-a-versary. Then last fall, I became involved in writing the history of the last wood-framed church building in Grand Forks when it was slated for demolition. As a result of this second project, I have been courting the Grand Forks Community Land Trust and seeing if there is the potential for a collaborative project between the Department of History and the Community Land Trust to produce local histories in association with properties that it acquires in the Grand Forks area.

Over the weekend, I put together a brief proposal and sent it over the Grand Forks Community Land Trust people to see if they might be willing to take our relationship a bit further. The initial response has been quite positive, but I still haven’t heard from all the players.

On the University of North Dakota side there is still a good bit of negotiating to do, but I am hopeful that there will be some good will toward this opportunity.

So, here’s the proposal:

Grand Forks Community History Project

Introduction

The Grand Forks Community History Project is a collaboration between the Department of History at the University of North Dakota and the Grand Forks Community Land Trust (CLT). The goal of the collaboration is to produce a series of community histories for neighborhoods with properties redeveloped by the non-profit CLT. The histories will combine professional scholarly rigor with an accessible language and format. Each relatively short work (10,000 – 15,000 words) will form a part of a larger series of histories that aspires to a block-by-block history of Grand Forks and brings to life to the stories, dynamism, and architecture of the community.

The CLT and the Department of History recognize the power of the past to shape the present. The CLT’s work to create strong communities by making affordable housing available in Grand Forks finds common cause with work of local and public historians who strive to tell the story of the entire community.  The Department of History and the CLT will present the books to new residents of CLT homes, circulate them to the associated neighborhoods, provide them at no or low cost to civic institutions, libraries, churches, et c., and sell them at cost through local bookstores. The goal from both the CLT and the Department of History perspective is to use these volumes to strengthen the local community.

The alliance between the CLT and the Department of History will also work to reinforce the ties between the University, the Department of History and the community through partnering with a local organization. The main authors of the volumes will be doctoral level students or exceptional M.A. students under the guidance of Prof. Cynthia Prescott, Prof. William Caraher, and Prof. Bret Weber.  The books will be part of the Department of History’s developing program in Public History and serve as a powerful regional showcase for the best work from our department.

The Program

In the Fall of 2011 the first volume of the series was commissioned by Prof. Caraher and the CLT. The volume, authored by, Chris Price, D.A. student in the Department of History documents the history and architecture of the church on 3rd and Walnut St. in Grand Forks, which is a CLT property and slated for destruction this spring.  This church is among the oldest standing churches in town and the last remaining wood framed church in Grand Forks city limits. In spring of 2012, the CLT will build a single family house on the lot and we will present the volume on the history of the church along with an architectural drawing of the building to the residence of the home, the local community, and state and local archives and libraries. This volume will be the lasting record of the church.

In 2012 we plan to expand this program to include properties acquired by the CLT throughout Grand Forks. For a larger implementation of this program, we will run a seminar for the students on community history and begin to develop the skills and research time needed for producing additional volumes. The resources available at the Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections will support the writing of these local histories and serve as one of a number of outlets for making our work available for the community.

To manage the overhead of producing a series of books, we were serve as the publisher coordinating peer review, contacting authors, and distributing the books locally. We will produce the books in very small print runs and provide additional copies through a print-on-demand service like Lulu. We will also make the manuscripts available in digital formats as either ebook or pdf. This will be done in collaboration with the Working Group in Digital and New Media.

Funding

The collaboration with the CLT provided necessary start up money for the initial phase of the project. They subsidized the publication of the first volume in collaboration with private donors through the Cyprus Research Fund.

 

The next phase of the project will require additional support. At present, we envision a series of 15 to 20 volumes each written by an advanced graduate student. Each volume would cost approximate $1000 to produce and distribute. Because the volumes will be tied to particular properties, the full funding will not be necessary from the start. Ideally, a collaboration with the CLT will open doors to community development money not typically accessible to history projects.

Next Steps

There are three steps necessary to advance this project:

1. There needs to be a liaison between the CLT and the Department of History who will decide which properties will receive the first round of histories.

2. A representative in the Department of History who will work with a representative the CLT to write grants and consider funding options and priorities.

3. A representative to supervise the production of the next round of volumes.

Obviously, these three positions can be occupied by a single individual, but this will involve a significant amount of time and energy. Initiating a community development project is not native to the academic programs of most historians. The value of this project, however is significant, and it will reinforce the innovative character of the CLT as well as the growing interest in public history in the Department of History. The opportunity for graduate students to get first hand experience shepherding a project from research to publication is invaluable for their professional development. More importantly, projects like this have the opportunity to make our community stronger.

 

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