California Historical Society
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California Historical Society
Created and maintained by the California Historical Society, San Francisco, Calif.
Reviewed Dec. 2730, 2005.

Since its inception (after several false starts) in the 1920s, the California Historical Society (CHS) has presented a wide variety of resources for scholarly, educational, and public use. Yet it has also labored in the shadow of larger, better-funded archives and museums. The society’s website introduces the visitor to its programs, publications, and opportunities and may raise its profile to a measurable, if not spectacular, level.

The Big Orange online exhibit displays label art from California’s citrus farming industry.

The site’s most useful and extensive features include the "California Cultural Directory,“ a section on the CHS’s past exhibitions, and several PDF (portable document format) documents on curriculum development for K8 teachers. The directory, compiled in partnership with the California Studies Program at San Francisco State University, includes listings, organized by county, for almost a thousand state historical, cultural, and environmental organizations. It is a convenient and quick reference tool for anyone interested in local aspects of California’s past and present. The ”Past Exhibitions“ page (accessible, somewhat confusingly, only via the ”Current Exhibitions“ page) catalogs the last several years of CHS exhibits at its museum space in San Francisco. Each listing includes background on the exhibit and image galleries-some also have bibliographical references and lists of related links. Cultural historians and aficionados of Californiana in particular will appreciate those pages, as the majority of those exhibits deal with artwork, painting, or photography. The teachers' guides, available in the ”Programs" section, deal primarily with exhibits no longer on display at the museum, but they do incorporate material and references that may be useful for elementary and middle school curricula development. An additional page provides links to oral history resources for student researchers.

Despite those virtues the site has definite limitations. Aside from the “California Cultural Directory” professional scholars will find little of use here. The site provides no new information on CHS collections, which in any case have already been integrated into the databases of the Online Archive of California, http://www.oac.cdlib.org, and Melvyl, the database of the University of California libraries. Nonacademics will find information of moderate breadth and depth. "California History Online," a timeline with pictures and narrative by James J. Rawls (adapted, it appears, from the textbook California History (1998) he wrote with Walton Bean) gives a somewhat schematic overview of the state’s history, but ends in the 1930s. When I visited the site, the search function for this feature was not operating. Moreover, some of the photo galleries in the exhibits pages (Summer of Love and Big Orange, for example) lack captions or contextualizing information, which may limit their usefulness for teachers.

In recent years the CHS has made some strategic moves to raise its visibility, restructuring its research policies and presenting new exhibits that display the breadth of its resources. The website effectively illustrates the society’s progress in this regard even though it contributes only moderately to the effort itself.

H. Mark Wild
California State University
Los Angeles, California