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Ten years of entrepreneurial history saving

HistoryIT’s ten-year anniversary this month has given me cause to look back and reflect on how we got here. It’s not a typical entrepreneur story, for sure, but HistoryIT has become more than a typical company.

I never thought of myself as entrepreneurial, and I didn’t start off with any grand designs. I didn’t even have a business plan until 2013, two years after I founded the company.

I was a historian with a background in web and software development. People kept approaching me because they had been awarded a grant to build a humanities project using technology, but then discovered that the technology wasn’t useful for their needs. They needed someone – yours truly – to fix the project. The more often this happened, the more I wondered why people weren’t coming to me to create the appropriate technology from the beginning.

Initially, the idea was that HistoryIT would help people and organizations better tell their stories in the digital realm. The more I worked on helping them build a digital presentation, however, the more I realized that their stories were inaccessible. They didn’t just need a better presentation, they needed to be able to easily access properly digitized materials. They needed comprehensive digitization, categorization, and tagging of their entire historical archive. AND, in order to share histories with a broader population than researchers, we quickly realized we would need to provide a completely new software platform.

Enter HistoryIT.

Earlier milestones

Our first national client was the National Women’s History Museum in Washington, D.C. in 2012. After that, the milestones came fast and furious. In 2013, we secured our first large-scale institutional contract for the University of Indianapolis. That same year, we received a grant from the Maine Technology Institute to create our first software, so we re-headquartered the company from Chicago to Portland (also proving my mother right that all Mainers eventually come home again!).

University of Indianapolis Digital Mayoral Archive Launch
The Launch of the University of Indianapolis Digital Mayoral Archive and a Retrospective of the Colts’ Move to Indianapolis. Left to right Dr. Ted Frantz, Mayor Bill Hudnut, Senator Richard Lugar, Colts COO Pete Ward, Kristen Gwinn-Becker, UIndy President Rob Manual. October 2013

By 2014, we grew to fifty-two employees in four different cities (Chicago, Portland, Indianapolis, and Washington, D.C.). I ended up running an empire, including a large digital imaging lab in Indianapolis, which is a major hub for sports teams and Greek organizations.

KGB at Baseball Hall of Fame
Kristen holding Babe Ruth’s bat during the digital strategy assessment at the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in August 2015.

2015 – four years after our founding – was a big year for HistoryIT. We became a C corporation, landed a partnership with the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, opened a New York office, and started looking at organizations like churches, synagogues, and Greek organizations, which had offshoots in multiple cities, as potential clients. As we did so, we reframed our business model. We shut down the imaging lab, closed our Indianapolis and D.C. offices, and downsized, becoming more strategic and focused.

 

That same year we had our first Maine-based project, the Salt Story Archive, a digital archive for the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. That project was particularly meaningful for me – it was like coming home, and it was incredibly powerful to be able to digitize forty years’ worth of documenting people from Maine. When people ask me about my favorite projects from the past decade, Salt is still toward the top of my list.

Salt Story Archive

2016 brought two major developments. We established our first international partnership – with the University of Utrecht in The Netherlands – so that we could start to bring our ideas about democratizing history through more robust digital platforms to Europe!

Kristen and Laura at the SAE Archives
Kristen and Project Director Laura Pearce on an adventure in the SAE Archives. January 2017

Also, our outreach to the Greek-letter community paid off and we signed our first Greek client, the Evanston, IL-based Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. A partnership with Kappa Kappa Gamma soon followed, and by 2020 Greek organizations had expanded to constitute approximately 35% of our history saving. This serves as a constant reminder to me that history truly is everywhere and there are so many stories waiting to be revealed and shared! I now often like to joke that if you’d have told me ten years ago that I would spend a good amount of my time talking about baseball and fraternities (two topics which I had previously known close to nothing about), I never would’ve believed you!

2020 saw another significant change to our operations, thanks to the global pandemic. On a logistical level, our work became much more challenging, as we had to figure out how to assess potential clients’ archives without having our historians physically there to interact with the collections in person. On a more positive note, the world suddenly shifted to a perspective that I had always been talking about, one where organizations realized that they absolutely had to have digital content which others could interact with. This realization changed the mindset of our target market (or rather, it refocused their priorities), and requests for HistoryIT’s services spiked by 30-40%.

2020 client meeting screenshot
Kristen talking with Kappa Kappa Gamma. Client meetings looked a little different in 2020.

Helping our clients preserve and tell their stories

Clients tend to come to us when one or more of the following situations exists:

  1. Their current system doesn’t meet their needs
  2. They wish to celebrate an impending milestone but cannot access their history
  3. Their marketing/communications team realizes that they need access to more digital content

HistoryIT prides itself on making searchable archives. When I say searchable, I don’t mean just by professional researchers – I mean by anyone, including a sixth-grade student in another state.

Over the last ten years, HistoryIT’s software technology has evolved from digital archive management to also include digital preservation, presentation, and robust storytelling options, giving our clients a soup-to-nuts menu of options. During that same timeframe, Google’s evolution has allowed us to enhance our searches and better integrate functionality into our software.

Dream projects?

I’d love to expand our client base into the political arena, helping to digitally preserve and make accessible the papers of people or organizations in public service. Much of our political history is lost every time there is an administration change. Even when the papers are archived, they remain inaccessible to ordinary people. I’d like to change that.

Looking ahead

At HistoryIT, we spend a lot of time looking back, but we never do so without also looking ahead. We believe access to the past is necessary in order to build a better future. As I think about where we’ve come from and how we’ve evolved from a startup into an established company, I also think about where we’re going.

The biggest challenge facing HistoryIT is the ongoing need to educate people about the difference between digitization and digital preservation, and getting them to understand that there is a world of difference between what we do and what an intern with a scanner can do.

One thing I’m particularly excited about in 2021 is that we’re starting to see more intersections between the digital histories of seemingly disconnected organizations. For example, we partnered with the Maine Seacoast Mission back in 2012 to assess their archive. In 2019, we also started working with the history of the Sigma Kappa sorority. It turns out that the Seacoast Mission was the sorority’s first philanthropic focus (and remains so to this day). We actually discovered a Sigma Kappa scrapbook in 2012 and didn’t understand its relevance until seven years later.

In 2013, we worked with UIndy archival materials about Muhammad Ali and in 2020 partnered with the Muhammad Ali Center. We also discovered a connection between the UIndy Digital Mayoral Archive and the Kappa Kappa Gamma Digital Archive with a series of photographs containing then Indianapolis Mayor (and later Senator) Richard Lugar at Kappa’s 1972 National Convention.

These are only two of many examples of many intersections in the larger narrative of our projects.

By the time HistoryIT’s twenty-year anniversary rolls around, I envision that HistoryIT will be the go-to company for saving history through digital preservation. I want it to be recognized as the best solution out there. I’d also like to be twenty pounds lighter, look two decades younger, and own both a private jet and an island…but for now I’m still laser-focused on getting the word out about the importance of preserving and sharing one’s story in a way that is accessible to all.

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