SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

March 10, 2014

Groups looking for some young blood

North Shore historical societies say they're dominated by older folks

By Alan Burke
Staff Writer

---- — It might be that people start thinking about the past only after they’ve been a big part of it. Visit your average historical society and you won’t see many young people.

The need for new, young volunteers is such a problem, believes Richard St. Pierre, recently elected president of the Peabody Historical Society, that he’s declared attracting them a top priority. He’s launching plans to offer community service programs for school kids.

They would be doing it for credit, he said, but hopefully some will stick with it just for the love of history.

“If we lead them to the water,” he said, “maybe they’ll drink.”

St. Pierre remains grateful to the volunteers he has now.

“Their enthusiasm knows no bounds. But we want to get enthusiastic young people in here, too,” he said.

People are needed to catalog and preserve artifacts, oversee exhibitions and buildings, even to search online for treasures related to Peabody’s past.

At 62, St. Pierre counts himself as one of the youngest members of the society.

“We’re not getting the 30-year-olds, 40-year-olds or 20-year-olds. ... The members I see ... they’re not going to be around forever,” he said.

Those involved in promoting local history acknowledge a chronic barrier to enlisting young people to the cause: time.

“People are busy with families,” said Ann Birkner, office manager at the Peabody society. “There have been times when someone was a volunteer, and they weren’t able to do much.”

In addition, young people are vulnerable to more distractions than the older generation, said Wayne Eisenhauer, president of the Danvers Historical Society.

“There’s Facebook and Twitter and Instagram,” he said. With older people less likely to be engaged with online sites, “the social media is splintering us into more and more segments. And it’s more difficult to reach out.”

Not everyone shares these concerns. Birkner, who began as a society volunteer in Peabody 16 years ago, believes history has always attracted older people, often retirees. She gets support here from Beverly Historical Society director Sue Goganian, who believes it’s increasingly difficult for younger people to get involved.

“Everything now is challenging,” she said, noting, among other things, how often both spouses in a family must work. “There is so much pressure.”

Yet, while it’s a bit of a challenge to get them, “we have some young volunteers,” Goganian said. “We’ve had some high school kids, a few in their 20s and 30s.” Television and movies dealing with history still attract young people, she said. Likewise, they show an interest in the related study of genealogy. At the same time, she conceded, “I think you get more interested as you get older.”

Both St. Pierre and Eisenhauer sense a dwindling interest in the past on the part of the young. Even those who visit the historic sites and exhibits tend to be older.

Standardized testing is to blame for some of this, St. Pierre and Eisenhauer believe. With the need to align lessons with the statewide MCAS, Danvers and Peabody students get too little of their towns’ history, they said.

“That’s something we need to get back into,” St. Pierre said.

On the other hand, while he acknowledges the impact of MCAS, Peabody schools Superintendent Joe Mastrocola defends the amount of local history taught in Peabody. It includes a high school course on Essex County.

Eisenhauer stressed the importance of remembering. Our world has evolved, he noted, “and if it breaks down and they don’t know how it was put together, they’re going to have a difficult time putting it back.”

Birkner is more optimistic. If there is difficulty attracting the young, she is confident of bringing in folks who are at least as young as she was 16 years ago. “To get younger people involved is a matter of passing the torch,” she said.

Alan Burke can be reached at aburke@salemnews.com.