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Our Past Deserves a Future

This fall, society archivist Mary Ellen Goddard led a four-part seminar on archival practices. In addition to its wealth of practical information, the seminar helped answer the question, “What does the society do?” Read on to learn the answer.

Session #1: Society Overview and Collection Policy

The Costa Mesa Historical Society is a 501(c)3 organization founded in 1966. The society is not a city department. It is, rather, a 100% volunteer organization staffed by private citizens dedicated to fulfilling the society’s mission: preserving and promoting the history of Costa Mesa.

The society accomplishes its mission through regular public events, community collaborations, and, most relevant for the seminar, the collection at its two museums. This collection comprises some 1,500 books, 30,000 photos, and 100 GB of newspapers, as well as countless personal archives, maps, oral histories, digital media, textiles, and more. The collection is irreplaceable and priceless.

The society acquires new items through gifts, bequests, purchases, and exchanges. Acquisitions strengthen the existing collection, broaden its base, or support a specific project or exhibit. Most acquisitions focus on Costa Mesa and around, but supplementary items about local people and businesses are sometimes accepted. Even if an item meets the criteria above, it may not be accepted: if the society can’t properly care for it (e.g., some native artifacts), if the current owner doesn’t have a clear title, or if it’s too expensive.

When dealing with such a valuable collection, ethics are key. No one should benefit financially from the collection, make unauthorized copies, or compete with the society. Volunteers must protect the collection from defacement, deterioration, and theft, as well as protect the privacy of donors, researchers, and people appearing in the collection.

Session #2: Processing the Collection

When an item is acquired by the society, the item must be processed. If the four steps aren’t followed thoroughly and correctly, it may be impossible to find it again!

Registering/accessioning helps establish provenance,  legally transfer ownership, and provide a birds-eye view of the contents of the donation. Boxing is the art of finding a suitable home for the item, whether it be a folder, storage case, map box, library shelf, or computer hard drive. During cataloging, details about the item are added to a computer database. A volunteer describes each item, assigns it to the correct catalog (object, document, photo, or book), properly classifies it, identifies the people in it, and extracts the relevant search terms from it. Finally, boxes are shelved, like with like, in numerical order, with the location noted on the catalog record.

Session #3: Accessing the Collections

Accessing items in the collection often starts from either a patron question or from an internal need for an exhibit, newsletter article, or book. But whatever prompts the search, the researcher must determine exactly what to look for: the narrower the scope, the more relevant the results.

Researchers can query the database by keyword, by a person’s name, or by using complex Boolean logic. Or they can consult photo subject boxes and the newspaper database, among other resources. Search results may include both physical and digital materials. When information is found, the patron can take notes or photographs, or ask the society to provide copies, scans, or prints for a fee. If a patron handles an item, it is up to society volunteers to protect the artifact not just from theft or damage, but also from mis-shelving.

Sometimes items are shared with other institutions. OCC, for example, displays murals from the Santa Ana Army Air Base. The archivist determines the exact terms of the loan.

Session #4: Sharing the Collection

The society shares its collection with a broad audience through permanent and temporary exhibits. Exhibits engage and excite the public about the historical society’s collection by highlighting representative or unique objects on a particular topic. Exhibits don’t have to be in a museum. Metro Car Wash, for instance, displays some fifty pictures from the society’s collection. The society’s books, newsletter, and website are other “venues” for the collection.

At the society’s museums, permanent exhibits cover broad topics such as the Costa Mesa Timeline and the Santa Ana Air Base. Temporary exhibits focus on a special aspect of history, such as the current exhibit on boatbuilding or past exhibits on Denwar Crafts and Nell Murbarger.

Creating a new exhibit is fun but challenging. Curators must brainstorm, budget, champion, schedule, and publicize. The fun part — collecting, labeling, and organizing the items for display — presents its own challenges. Curators must creatively select just a few key pieces from the society’s vast collection to tell a story without overwhelming the visitor.

Once an exhibit is open to the public, docents bring it to life. They bridge the gap between visitors and exhibits by carefully listening, asking questions, and building on what the visitor already knows. This personal interaction with the public is a fitting culmination of the entire collection process.


The historical society collection is a true museum. It employs the methods, objectives, and tools of museums all over the world. While its scope may be more limited, it shares their sophistication. What does the society do? A lot!

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