Vermont History Day and the Vermont Historical Society

by Toben Traver

What happens when we engage students in the process of historic documentation and research? This is the question that drives the annual Vermont History Day (VHD) program and competition. Since 1983, VHD, administered by the Vermont Historical Society(VHS) in affiliation with National History Day (NHD), has worked to provide Vermont 5th12th grade students with opportunities to develop research skills,grapple critically with historic topics, and present the fruits of their labor to their peers and community. All student projects are organized around a common theme selected each year by NHD, a national nonprofit organization committed to teaching, preparing, and inspiring the next generation of historicallygrounded citizens. Students are charged with delving into the topic of their choice, and encouraged to bring in creative skills and interests; projects solo or in groups of up to five can take the form of an essay, a performance, an exhibit, a documentary, or a website. Placing first or second in the statewide April competition qualifies students to compete at the national level in June. In 2021, as in 2020, these competitions will be virtual events due to the ongoing COVID19 Pandemic.

VHD fits squarely within the mission of the VHS, which is to engage a wide audiencein the exploration of our state’s rich heritage… through our outstanding collections, statewide outreach, and dynamic programming(Vermont Historical Society, 2021). The program provides an opportunity for students, parents, and teachers from across Vermont to connect with and learn to value historic materials. VHS also demonstrates a clear understanding of how they can tailor their services to this group of users by highlighting possible project ideas oriented to the issues that animate them environmental degradation, social justice, and indigenous rights, for instance. Howto guides and tutorials are written with gradeschool students in mind, using language and imagery they might find approachable. Resources on the VHS website guide participants in how to locate and evaluate primary and secondary sources, a critical component of building archival and information literacy. Further, resources link to various other libraries, museums, local historical societies, and repositories throughout the state. In this way, the project helps raise awareness of the broader environment of cultural heritage centers throughout Vermont, and provides avenues for outreach to critical partner organizations and future potential allies of the VHS.

Students are one of the primary audiences for VHD, though they are certainly not its only beneficiaries. While, according the VHS website, one hundred and sixtyseven students participated in the VHD competition in 2020, a virtual exhibition allows a broad swath of the public to learn about the individual topics and projects, and perhaps connect with the VHS, Vermont State Archives, or other organizations that house cultural heritage materials (Vermont Historical Society, 2020). Educators are a central target of this program as well. VHD provides tools for incorporating historical teaching and learning into the classroom, including suggested topics of study relevant to Vermont’s history, and creative methodologies for engaging in research, such as oral history.

While many of the students engaged in this program have benefited immensely, judging by their glowing reviews on the VHD webpage, it is difficult to quantify the programs impact. Many of the winning projects in 2020 originated from one school and one town,suggesting that some teachers and communities have found ways to fold the program into their classrooms successfully, while others may have not. That said, local history, culture, and politics have long been celebrated in Vermont, and the VHS has secured a prominent role in educating, promoting, and preserving Vermontersconnections with their past. VHD provides a clear avenue for this kind of wrestling with history, offering students the chance to direct their own learning, and showing all involved the power that historical materials can have. In this way, the program helps secure a loyal base of support for the VHS, and ensure the organization can continue its mission into the future.

Links for further reading:

The Vermont Historical Society:

Vermont History Day:

National History Day:


Vermont Historical Society. (2020). Vermont History Day 2020. Vermont History. URL:

Vermont Historical Society. (2021). Mission & Strategic Plan. Vermont History. URL:

Meet Maggie Hoffman, Archivist at the Cambridge Historical Society

by Jasmine Bonanca

How can I talk about what’s in our collections and make sure that I’m bringing that forward into today and really getting people to ask serious questions about it?”

The Cambridge Historical Society (CHS) is an organization eager to connect the Cambridge community’s past to its present, and Maggie Hoffman is the organization’s enthusiastic archivist.  She’s part of a cozy staff of three that includes herself, the CHS’s Executive Director Marieke Van Damme, and the Program Manager Perri Meldon, all of whom report to the organization’s governing council.  Together, they all work to further the CHS’s mission of collecting the history of Cambridge and using it to provide insight on the community’s present, and hopefully its future.

Hoffman works part-time as both the CHS’s archivist and, as of 2019, their social media manager.  Much of her work involves working processing the organization’s backlog, carrying out preservation management, and answering reference questions.  She carries out about 20 reference interactions a month, which she receives from both researchers and the governing council.

Actively contributing to the Cambridge community’s dialogue about its history and trajectory is a sincere passion of both Hoffman and the CHS.  To that end, the CHS takes part in a number of outreach programs.  One that Hoffman highlighted was the CHS’s “History Cafés,” wherein speakers are invited to local restaurants, bars, etc., to discuss timely topics through a historical perspective.  These meetings are often built around the CHS’s yearly themes, which they pose to themselves in the form of a question.

2019’s theme is one that Hoffman is particularly excited about: “How does Cambridge Engage?”  Cambridge has a long history of being a socially and politically active community, and she’s excited to use the CHS collections to demonstrate the ways Cambridge community members have historically engaged with the goings-on of the wider world.  Specifically, she’s excited about the new exhibit she is currently working on, which focuses on a collection of papers from the Harvard chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, who during the Vietnam War era, protested both the presence of the ROTC on Harvard’s campus and what she referred to as “Harvard’s land-grabbing habits.”  Though she was aware of the anti-war protests, which were national in scope, the fact that Harvard students had also been protesting the school’s land purchases surprised her, especially as that is an on-going concern in the community.  It also adds a unique Cambridge nuance to what at the time was a national conversation.

Hoffman is especially grateful to work at an organization that allows her to create exhibits around such important and sensitive topics. “It’s a project that could be seen as a little bit controversial, but the fact that I’m able to do that makes me really happy and reminds me of why I love doing this work,” Hoffman said.  She believes that bringing making collections like these available to the community, and developing conversations around them, is both important outreach and part of what makes archival work so wonderful.

Other outreach activities the CHS undertakes include working with the Cambridge Historical Commission to participate in Cambridge Open Archives, Archives Hashtag Party, and a host of other events that both physically and digitally get the CHS “out of the house” and into the greater Cambridge area.

In all of her efforts, Hoffman tries to keep social responsibility in mind.  For example, when the CHS decided that 2018’s theme would be “Where is Cambridge From?” she realized that answering that question solely from the CHS’s collections would present an incomplete, cis-, white, male version of Cambridge history, and reached out to other archives with more diverse holding to help fill in the gaps as the organization told Cambridge’s history.  The CHS has also taken on a finding aid verification project that involves bringing finding aids up-to-date and when necessary rewriting them to make them more reflective of the collection’s content, especially content concerning historically marginalized content creators or significant subjects who in previous versions were not given their due space in the finding aids.

Maggie Hoffman strives to follow the CHS’s mission of using Cambridge’s past to understand and imagine its future.

For more information on the CHS, please visit their website:

For more information on the CHS History Cafe’s, see here:

Meet Amy Durban, Manager of Education at the Nantucket Historical Association

by Brigid Hogan

As an off-coast tourist destination, the population of Nantucket swells and dwindles with the seasons. In winter, about 13,000 Nantucket natives reign on the island. Come summertime, the population bursts upward to 50,000 as a result of tourist traffic. Amy Durbin, the Manager of Education at the Nantucket Historical Association, talks about the unique struggles of this human migration pattern. “It’s a difficult balance to strike,” she says, “how do we cater to the people who can fund us, the tourists who keep our lights on, while also understanding that they are not our primary audience for eight months of the year?”

Durbin has been in this role for almost a year, and she has responded to the challenge admirably. Previously, Durbin worked at the New Haven Museum, managing their education and visitor experience as one of only seven full-time staff members in the entire museum. While her three plus years in New Haven gave her invaluable background in designing and running educational programs for museums, she still felt a considerable adjustment when she entered a staff nearly four times the size of New Haven Museum’s.

At the NHA, Durbin’s first course of action was to assess the strengths of her new department, and the people in it. She conducted a long and careful observation each staff member in their work to determine whether they were most comfortable working with children or adults, tourists or locals, or if they’re the rare type (like Durbin herself) who is comfortable speaking to anyone. In a location subject to radical demographic shifts, it can be difficult to know which audience is going to show up for which events, so Durbin finds herself preparing for any and every audience. This is a lot easier to do when you know which members of your staff will be best equipped to help you in each possible case.

As Manager of Education, Durbin meets with every single class in the entire Nantucket school district. That’s around 2,000 students in all. She works hard to support class learning with real world examples. Luckily, she claims there is relatable material in Nantucket Historical Association on virtually any subject. Literature? Moby Dick. Economics? The whaling industry. Immigration, exploration, scientific discovery, native communities, manifest destiny, civil rights—if you take time to look through the records, Nantucket proves itself to be a microcosm of the vast American culture.

In collaboration with the Chair of Education & Community Relations, Durbin helped to spearhead a program called “We All Speak Moby-Dick,” a multi-lingual reading event that brought out many of the cultural communities of Nantucket to celebrate themselves and each other. Durbin pulled on many of the connections she had made through her outreach to local schools, and was able to create a hugely successful and diverse event that spoke to a broad cross-section of Nantucket.

Still, she says, there was room to grow. During the event, a number of people approached her asking where the representatives of the Jamaican community could be found. Durbin was forced to admit that she had not been able to get a reader who spoke Patoi; considering the sizable Jamaican population of Nantucket, this absence was pretty glaring. “It’s a lesson learned,” says Durbin, who ironically found that a recently hired coworker spoke Patoi the morning of the event, but didn’t have time to adjust the programming in order to make room for another reader.  The lesson? “Always do a deep change analysis after your event. And know your coworkers.”

Beyond her more traditional efforts as Manager of Education, Durbin is pushing to involve the NHA more deeply in town, state, and national government, trying to bolster the strength of her community through political efforts. LAMs are in a unique position between the government and the people, and she strongly believes in their capacity to lead community action and help underserved populations. Her vision is to make the NHA a resource that can benefit every one of her constituents, and also to be a source of support and strength for other cultural institutions. Helping your allies can only help you in the long run. With these dual goals, a typical month can take her from designing the NHA’s free lesson plans for local teachers, to attending LAM advocacy events across the country. She has both the strategic mind needed to understand networks of social and political power, and the moral clarity required to redistribute that power where it is needed.

Meet Nancy Carlisle, Senior Curator of Collections at Historic New England

by JC Johnson 

Cover of catalog for “Cherished Possession” exhibition at Historic New England

For thirty years, Nancy Carlisle, Senior Curator of Collections, has been a vital part of Historic New England’s efforts to protect, preserve, and interpret the region’s unique history and how it fits within the cultural story of the United States. Founded in 1910, Historic New England is dedicated to preserving unique structures and significant objects. The organization owns over thirty historic houses, and has collections with over 123,000 objects, and more than a million documents, historical photographs and ephemera. Nancy and other staff members use the collections to create interpretive recreations of New Englanders’ domestic lives from the seventeenth through the twentieth century and illuminate the region’s rich history. Nancy Carlisle has made significant contributions to Historic New England’s mission and her work continues to challenge and excite her.

A New Jersey native with family roots in New England, Nancy visited New England frequently while growing up. Those excursions provided her first look at the unique architecture found across the region and stories those houses might contain. During college, Nancy studied art history and American history. These passions formed the foundation for Nancy’s wide-ranging duties at Historic New England. Still, Nancy claims her main responsibility as a curator is to find ways to share the stories that the collections of historic New England tell about the people who lived here.

Nancy helps oversee the organization’s holdings of historic household objects and artifacts. She also works to locate and acquire new objects for the collections which appropriately augment existing holdings. Nancy also collaborates with her colleagues to create exhibitions in the organization’s historic houses using objects and furnishings in order to provide insight into four hundred years of life in New England. This process requires Nancy to visit houses with colleagues, sometimes using archival photos and records as reference points to assess the site and plan their work. Some site interpretations dress an entire house to represent a single time period, and in other cases, a house’s furnishings may be curated to lead visitors through different eras as they move from room to room.

Nancy is interested in the stories found through examining the objects with which people surrounded themselves. She focuses on the “everyman” and “every object” and does not limit interpreting the past through the words and deeds of “the great man.” Objects and domestic settings inspires Nancy, particularly because, as she relates, much of America’s domestic history is women’s history. In fact, Nancy co-authored the book, America’s Kitchens, with Melinda Talbot Nasardinov. For this book, Nancy chose items from Historic New England’s collection to guide readers through a history of American cooking while examining the evolution of the kitchen’s cultural significance over two hundred years of American domestic life.

Nancy’s proudest accomplishment is “Cherished Possessions: A New England Legacy”, the organization’s first major travelling exhibition, which she curated. Between 2003 and 2005, the exhibition visited museums from Maine to Hawaii. The well-reviewed exhibition featured significant objects from four centuries of New England life which provided entry points to understanding the people who valued those items. Nancy also wrote the accompanying exhibition catalog detailing the items and the stories they tell.

Nancy leads small tours at Historic New England sites, including the main facility in Haverhill, and she speaks at other regional cultural organizations. She enjoys these regular opportunities to interact with people across New England. Her outreach work also entails writing articles for Historic New England magazine and other antiques and fine arts publications. One recent article examines two earthenware pots linked to two remarkable New England women centuries apart. Lastly, Nancy’s work involves fundraising activities like researching and applying for project grants. When project funding comes through, as it did for the restoration of Quincy House, in Quincy, Massachusetts, Nancy thrills that a sleepy house returns to life to tell its story. She happily reports that Quincy residents embraced the project, and the restored house helped enhance civic pride for the town’s past and present.

Nancy Carlisle plays many vital roles at Historic New England. She enjoys them all. Examining objects and interpreting the stories that they tell about people is one of the great rewards that she takes from her work. That mission remains a driving motivation and fits well with the mission of Historic New England. In fact, when she has compared other institutions to her own, Nancy readily admits that Historic New England is exactly the right place for her.

Meet Michelle Chiles, Robinson Center Research Manager

by Bree Comeau

Having begun her professional career as a middle school teacher in Washington state, Michelle Chiles, always had a passion for outreach and supporting her community. In 2009, she moved halfway around the world when her partner was offered a job in Tasmania. It was there that her work in libraries and archives began. Michelle started working for the Australian Childhood Foundation, an organization whose focus is to help and support children who are victims of abuse, neglect and family violence. However, the part-time hours with the organization weren’t enough so Michelle looked for ways to stay busy while becoming more involved with her community. She began volunteering at the State Library & Archives of Tasmania and found her calling!  After her move back to the US, Michelle enrolled in the Library and Information Science program at Simmons College with a concentration in Archives Management.

After her graduation in 2013, Michelle worked at various institutions in and around the Boston area until landing her current position at the Robinson Research Center in 2016. Michelle is the Manager of the Research Center, a role that includes the responsibilities of head reference librarian, outreach program planner, and plenty more. The Research Center is part of the Rhode Island Historical Society (RIHS), and there are times when outreach initiatives require support and collaboration with other departments, which can be tricky.

A popular outreach program in collaboration with the Providence Public Library is a series of genealogy workshops called “Diggin’ Your Roots” which are offered during the Fall and Spring months. This year a new twist is being introduced to the outreach program with hopes it will garner new attendees. They are taking to the road! Each year the RIHS incorporates a theme into all the programs, and the 2018 theme is “Rest and Relaxation in Rhode Island.” According to Michelle, “the genealogy workshop series either piggy backs off that theme or we come up with another thread to tie the classes together. Since we were really struggling to find out how genealogy fit into that, we decided to make it a road trip since those are part of most people’s vacation memories! Even though Rhode Island is small, we still have many researchers comment on how tricky it is to get into the city to come to our Research Center, or our collaborator on these workshops, the Providence Public Library. So, we decided to take the workshops to them!” By taking the genealogy workshops on the road, people interested in the lessons but deterred by traveling into the city will now be able to participate closer to home.

Currently, many of the traditional users of the Research Center are genealogists, authors, faculty, college students and fellow co-workers. In addition to the new audiences reached by taking the program on the road, Michelle would love to expand the K-12 audience. Multiple offerings are geared towards schools and educators, including a digital textbook and “Field Trip Free for All” program. The “EnCompass Rhode Island History Digital Textbook” is a collaboration between the RIHS and Providence College and is geared towards educators across the state. The “Field Trip Free for All” program offers teacher-supervised visits to the Robinson Research Center, the John Brown House Museum, or the Museum of Work & Culture, at no cost. What a great way to encourage schools, educators and students to visit! The challenge is communicating these opportunities to the school communities.

Another challenge Michelle was quick to discuss involves the newest initiative “Netop Nights.” Not surprisingly, working out the kinks that come along with any new endeavor is always a big challenge. This once-a-month event allows the community to get up close to collections normally not available to them. Originally the plan was to have people preregister so that the staff could anticipate the number of guests. Unfortunately, people registered but didn’t come, while others just showed up. Since preregistration deters some people, an accurate head count in advance wasn’t possible. So, this year “Netop Nights” will not require preregistration. Michelle hopes the events will run smoothly; it’s all about trial-and-error after all.

Based on her experiences, Michelle’s best advice to aspiring archivists and librarians – get as much practice and experience with outreach and advocacy as possible! From teaching to program planning, it all helps build the skills needed to plan and manage outreach programs at your future place of work.

For more information visit: