Interested in preserving the past? Experts offer these tips for getting started

By Tammy Grubb, The News & Observer

If you want to preserve history, be willing to listen and be curious about what you learn and what it all means, state historians say.

“If you know the value of something, you and others will be much more motivated to try and preserve it and to amplify the story and continue the knowledge of that place, that person, that event,” said Ramona Bartos, deputy state historic preservation officer and director of the state Division of Historical Resources.

It can be as simple as documenting your family tree, experts said, or exploring the history of a community, event or building.

African-American history is particularly challenging due to the legacy of slavery and racial oppression, which tore apart families and made people wary of speaking out. In many cases, there was no medium through which people could tell those stories.

The Historical Resources department is talking about recruiting oral historians to record those stories, because it’s important to let the “witnesses speak for themselves about what was going on,” Bartos said.

The idea of letting people speak their own truth has fueled a renaissance in grassroots preservation work for a few years, said Adrienne Nirdé, director of the N.C. African American Heritage Commission. Others are motivated by inspiring the next generation.

“I think that that’s part of what spurs community members to move forward,” she said, “as they want the next generation to know their history, and to be able to learn from it and know that they are capable of great things.”

How do I get started preserving the past?

▪ Identify topics, priorities and interests to narrow your focus.

▪ Talk to family or community elders — more than once — and write down or record their stories. Start with simple questions: What do they remember? What did they do for fun, and what did people eat? Ask about smells, sights, sounds, and how it made them feel.

▪ Explore physical sources, including genealogies, journals, cemeteries, newspapers, church records, letters, old books and memorabilia.

▪ Visit the local Register of Deeds, the N.C. State Archives, or local, regional and university libraries.

How do I recognize what’s worth preserving?

▪ Learn more about what’s interesting to you or gather a group of people who can identify shared interests, potential stakeholders, and short- and long-term preservation goals for larger projects.

▪ A building that’s at least 50 years old may be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. If not, a building that’s interesting or has “aesthetic appeal” can be maintained until it qualifies.

▪ Read “Buying Time for Heritage: How to Save an Endangered Historic Property,” by J. Myrick Howard, president emeritus of Preservation North Carolina, said Valerie Johnson, Shaw University sociology professor and dean of Arts, Sciences and Humanities.

Where can I get help for preserving history?

▪ Seek help from state agencies and organizations, including the N.C. State Archive, State Historic Preservation Office, Office of State Archaeology, Preservation NC, and the N.C. African American and N.C. American Indian heritage commissions.

▪ Reach out to museums, historical associations, and universities and colleges with experts working on similar topics.

▪ Search online. A good state resource is the N.C. Digital Heritage Center in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Wilson Special Collections Library.

▪ Explore history and genealogy books at a local or regional library.

Do I need a lot of money or outside funding?

Not necessarily. Historic preservation can be done for the price of a few supplies, such as pens, boxes and photographic sleeves, or up to millions of dollars, Johnson said, but it’s free to collect stories from people and work with existing groups and organizations.

▪ Private grants are available from groups such as the Marion Stedman Covington Foundation in Greensboro, but grassroots efforts often rely on fundraisers, because they don’t qualify for public grants or have the staff to meet requirements.

▪ The Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives program provides a 20% federal income tax credit to rehabilitate historic buildings that will produce income, such as a commercial or business use, and are designated “certified historic structures.” North Carolina offers an additional 15% to 25% state income tax credit for those structures.

▪ Homeowner tax credit: North Carolina also offers a 15% state tax credit for homeowners who rehabilitate residential properties in designated historic districts or that are listed as historic structures.

▪ Voluntary easements: Property owners who work with a preservation or conservation organization to limit development of historic properties with a preservation easement also may be eligible for federal tax credits.

▪ Federation of North Carolina Historical Societies: Over 100 members statewide, including volunteers, libraries and history groups. Offers mini-grants, loans, workshops and other resources.

How to get people to learn more or visit what’s preserved?

▪ StorytellingStoryMaps is a free online resource that uses web-based mapping software to create interactive experiences.

▪ Start a website or blog: There are free and easy ways to share history with the public through a website, blog or on social media. YouTube is another great resource for recording programs and sharing them with a wider audience, experts say.

▪ Start a museum: This may be challenging for small groups that lack money and staffing, but experts suggest working with local museums or towns to create a local history exhibit and build the collection and public interest over time.

▪ History Harvests: Look for local events where preservation groups and libraries scan and preserve family photos and artifacts.

▪ Host a program: Free and low-cost space is available at schools, churches and libraries, or host a virtual program online.

▪ Active experiences: Organize a group cycling or kayak history tour, or a trip to a historic site or a festival to get people interested in history. Host a history date night at a local brewery.

▪ Roadside markers: Contact the N.C. Highway Historical Marker Program.