Road Trip: Indiana Historical Society

Allen Ottens

Perhaps as you’re reading this piece, you can hear some familiar tune faintly in the background. Maybe it’s the beguiling strains of “Begin the Beguine” or the rousing “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.” Whichever it is, it’s likely coming from the Cole Porter Room in the Indiana Historical Society, our venue for this Road Trip feature. Allen Ottens speakers with IHS Suzanne Hahn, vice president of the archives and library.

What should we know about your collection?

The IHS Library preserves and shares one of the largest collections on Indiana and the Old Northwest. We have nearly 2 million historical photographs, early maps, business records, personal papers, family and civic organization materials, and much more. Laid end to end, our collection would cover more than 6 miles.

Indiana Historical Society Walker Collection

Madam Walker driving an automobile. Madam C. J. Walker Collection, Indiana Historical Society.

Tell us more about some of your noteworthy items.

The IHS mission is to be “Indiana’s Storyteller.” Our collection seeks to illustrate Hoosiers from a variety of eras, geographic locations, and backgrounds.

We hold the largest archival collection documenting Madam C. J. Walker, whose hair-care products for African American women made her the wealthiest self-made woman in the country. (Editor’s note: She’s the subject of the Netflix series Self Made, which started streaming March 20.)

Our Civil War collections include diaries and letters from nearly every Indiana regiment. Of course, Indiana also was the home of Abraham Lincoln (after Kentucky, before Illinois). We have an incredible collection of Lincoln images and an early sum book page Lincoln completed as a schoolboy in Indiana. Recently, too, we acquired one of the largest collections documenting Indiana LGBTQ history.

If we visit now, what exhibits will we see?

Our award-winning Indiana Experience is an innovative way for visitors to experience Indiana’s history. The You Are There series invites visitors to step into a recreated image or document from the IHS collections. Destination Indiana features more than 300 time-travel journeys.

Visitors can catch a live performance in our Cole Porter Room. (The great Broadway composer was born in Peru, Indiana.) Of special interest to Manuscript Society members, the W. Brooks and Wanda Y. Fortune History Lab provides a rare opportunity to go behind the scenes of a real conservation lab and explore the technology used to preserve IHS collections.

Throughout the year, IHS offers a wide variety of programming. It runs the gamut from bourbon tasting at Indy’s Premier Bourbon Celebration and a summer concert series to the Hoosier Women at Work conference. That’s not to mention Whodunit, a life-sized, Clue-inspired experience when visitors team up to solve a murder mystery.

What are some of the noteworthy titles from IHS Press?

The IHS Press has been publishing books since the 1880s. It has won a Pulitzer Prize and been nominated for several Grammy awards. One of my favorite titles is Mapping Indiana: Five Centuries of Treasures from the Indiana Historical Society. It beautifully presents some of the significant maps in our archives. The press also publishes historical fiction for children, family history books, and two award-winning periodicals: Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History and The Hoosier Genealogist: Connections.

Whom should members call to arrange a visit?

Contact Amy Vedra, director of reference services, at 317-234-0321. The Indiana Historical Society is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Can’t make the trip in person? Visit to explore the Indiana Historical Society and its collections