For its fund-raising campaign in 1911-12, the Society published a promotional piece called A New Building for the Historical Society of Delaware which included an essay by President Joseph Brown Turner, “The Need of a New Building.” Since it must be admitted that 1913 was not a very active year for the Society, this is good time to share some portions of Turner’s essay that are as true today as they were a century ago, and that still shape the Delaware Historical Society’s mission and activities.
Turner emphasized that the most important function of the Society is to collect and preserve the “raw material of history”—what we would call primary sources today. He also understood that the study of history had changed greatly in recent years:
“The aims and methods of historical investigations have been revolutionized within the memory of students who are not yet old. Improved methods of study have given superior results in accurate and authentic work. Second-hand material, skillfully arranged, or rearranged, no longer answers the demand. Sources must be patiently sought and studied, presumable facts must be analyzed and compared, and seductive theories avoided.”
He also saw the Society as a valuable repository for family documents, memorabilia, and genealogical information. In the US, social and geographic mobility meant that as families dispersed, so did their historical material. The historical society was the ideal place for this material. Indeed, “In every State and Territory of the Union there are grandchildren and great grandchildren of old Delaware, and they send to us a constant stream of inquiries concerning their antecedents.”
All of this is still true today: the Society collects and preserves the raw materials of history, it holds family records, and it receives inquiries from people all over the country, and sometimes from abroad, whose ancestors lived in Delaware. To adapt Turner’s words to modern conditions, “Men [and women] may come, and men [and women] may go, but in the custody of this Society, which has outlived all of its original founders, these collections will remain secure.”