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Is Iowa History at Risk Under New State Plan?

Lee Wright

In January, the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs announced a plan to renovate and modernize the state historical building of Iowa. That comes after the department scaled back hours and made staffing changes at the historical building in Iowa City. The new plan has some Iowa historians very worried.

Tyler Priest is an associate professor of history at the University of Iowa. He started a petition at Change.org raising concerns that the plans to renovate the building in Des Moines endanger old diaries, letters, maps, oral histories and other materials archived by the state. He has been frustrated in the scaling back of both the hours available to do historical research and the number of librarians available to help track down resource materials.

“You take bored 18-year-olds who are constantly looking at their phones, and then the archivist asks them what their name is and goes over to pull out some old census records about their great grandfathers. And then the archivist might pull Platt Maps and show students where their family used to live,” he says. “And they are a changed person. It’s not just about discovering history, it’s about discovering themselves, and then they don’t want to leave. That avenue is being restricted.”

During this hour of Talk of Iowa, host Charity Nebbe talks with Priest. John Liepa, former board member for the State Historical Society and Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Des Moines Area Community College, and Tim Walch, former director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum and Library, also join the conversation.

Walch says that he is particularly concerned with the idea that’s been presented that the state can digitize the archives. He says there are millions of pages of source material that are currently not being taken care of appropriately and that Iowa ranks 47th when it comes to spending on archiving and preserving state history.

“The cost of digitization, at $17 a page, is not something that is realistic. You are going to provide a limited volume of materials through digitization,” he explains.

“The cost of maintaining this legacy, of what is means to be an Iowan, is expensive. You can’t do it on the cheap, and you can’t do it all with technology. We need to have a more robust discussion about the collections.”

Lindsey Moon is IPR's Senior Digital Producer
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa
Dennis Reese was the mid-day host for Iowa Public Radio