A year has gone by? These were the first five words out of my mouth after receiving the email notification that it was time to write this One Year Later piece. Wow! How could that be? The activities I wrote about a year ago – seemingly endless travel for on-site collection reviews with clients; the development of our national sales plan; the new face of our ArchivesTree™ software; rapid expansion and growth – they all seem like happenings of only a few weeks ago. But when I dig into the details, I question how it can be that only one year has gone by since that week. That’s all preamble to say that much has changed, much as stayed the same, and time is a very fluid thing. I’d say that’s true for both my own day-to-day work experiences and the company I run, HistoryIT.
As I sit writing this morning, I glance out of what I might call my typical “office window” on a glorious stretch of clouds, reminding me of the limitless possibilities of today. For the past two weeks I’ve been in our Portland office and working with clients both there and in Hartford. Now I’m winging my way to Chicago. While my job as CEO of HistoryIT continues to include substantial travel, I tend to spend more time in each location these days, which feels a little less frantic and allows more time for strategic planning. For the most part, my own role at the company is pretty much unchanged. I still get to spend time working directly with some of our clients, but concentrate most of my days reviewing sales and marketing efforts and building strategic alliances with company partners. In the past year, I’ve come to realize that well-formed strategic alliances are a real key to smart growth. They allow our company to expand capacity and range of services without continuing to cultivate new knowledge in house.
I could write a Russian novel-length blog on the all of the good and bad from the past year. In order to spare my readers, though, I’ll point to three highlights since I last took you through a week of my work life.
A year ago we were on the verge of releasing the new face and functionality of our cloud-based collection management software. I write regularly about the importance of HistoryIT’s services to build and implement digital strategies for historical collections, but our software makes our aggressive approach to building truly searchable collections really possible. In the past year, ArchivesTree™ has received a complete makeover and undergone a massive expansion of functionality. Under the leadership of our lead software engineer, Serge Vladimiroff, we now offer collections management software that truly is outstanding and allows our customers to host a range of materials and easily search and share across all of their collections.
TEDx Talk: The Future of History
Last spring I was invited to participate in TEDx Dirigo and I jumped at the opportunity. The organizers of the event warned me – multiple times – that this was no small commitment, that TEDx talks required a significant amount of time and energy in order to produce a meaningful presentation. They weren’t kidding. But it was worth it. Creating and delivering the TEDx talk was not only one of the highlights of my year; it was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had so far.
Creating the TEDx talk provided the opportunity to really flesh out why we do what we do at HistoryIT. I tend toward lengthy diatribes that explain in painful detail how our approach to making historical materials findable and meaningful differs from any other approach out there. In the process of creating the TEDx talk and working with my brilliant coach Seth Rigoletti of Valico Group. I could remove HistoryIT as a business from the discussion and return to the motivation and passion that prompted me to found the company in the first place: I believe it is critical that our historical resources transition to the digital age. If cultural heritage organizations fail to undertake this transition in a deliberate, smart, and immediate manner, we place our collective history in great danger; and society as a whole faces the possibility of losing our connections with the past. Many cultural heritage organizations, for a variety of reasons, truly are failing in this effort. HistoryIT exists to work on solutions to this problem. I’m forever grateful for the TEDx experience to return to the core of our message and learn how to better articulate this truth for the general public. I invite you to view the 15-minute talk.
While the TEDx talk provided the opportunity to reiterate and carefully articulate my belief in the urgent need to make historical collections available in a way that the public can make sense of, other forces were conspiring to expand the ways in which HistoryIT’s unique approach to dealing with historical collections could be of use to different kinds of organizations. If you think about it, any entity that has a collection of historical material could derive value from being able to access and/or share those materials in a useful manner. This truth means that HistoryIT’s market includes any organization that has amassed materials over time and that understands that they could better utilize those materials.
The expansion of our client base beyond the traditional cultural heritage organizations, library special collections, and political papers held by universities – those places we tend to think of as the central repositories of our history – was partially deliberate and partially organic. I anticipated that HistoryIT’s services eventually would extend to businesses, religious organizations, and even personal collections, but to our great excitement, in the past year that expansion has begun sooner and extends further than we originally anticipated. We’ve even started to work with professional sports teams.
A personal favorite project of mine from the past month involved working with the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, ME (www.salt.edu), where HistoryIT is headquartered. Salt is not a cultural heritage organization, but it maintains a wonderful archive of forty years of documentary materials, mostly relating to Maine folk life. How wonderful it is to explore these materials and work with the organization’s leadership to determine how they could manage a digital archive that would both share their wealth of incredible stories with the broader public and preserve them for the future.
These highlights from my year are all about HistoryIT’s successes. I’m still living the unimagined life of the jet-setting tech geek turned humanities geek turned CEO. While it’s a thrilling ride, it’s rarely a smooth one. The thing about being a CEO is that you pretty much learn on the job and do so while a thousand things shift around you on any given day. I’ve certainly made my share of mistakes in the past year and no doubt I’ve not made my last. But generally, I think as long as we learn from our mistakes and make more right decisions than wrong ones then both HistoryIT and I will continue to evolve into better creatures. That which doesn’t kill us makes us one step closer to being the Google of history. Onward.
Start from the beginning – Read Kristen Gwinn-Becker’s “Week in the Life”
Kristen Gwinn-Becker | HistoryIT
Nathan To says
Kristen, your work with HistoryIT sounds absolutely brilliant! Sounds incredibly exciting! Just learned about this today and caught up on all of your blogs here. I live in Toronto (and sometimes Vancouver), but would love to keep learning and hearing more about HistoryIT’s growth. Any chance that you’ll be coming to Canada soon to enlighten us Canadians on the Google of history too? :-)
Kristen Gwinn-Becker says
Thanks, Nathan! We at HistoryIT believe that history has no borders and that creating meaningful online history experiences is critical wherever we are. I’d love to come talk with our neighbors to the north about how we’re shaking things up. I’ll be certain to post if anything moves in that direction.