The Indiana Historical Society was started on December 11, 1830, which was the fourteenth anniversary of the statehood of Indiana (December 11, 1816). A collection of Indianapolis-area movers and shakers chose to start the society, and sought to obtain many objects relating to Indiana's history. It was to hold a "collection of all materials calculated to shed light on the natural, civil, and political history of Indiana, the promotion of useful knowledge and the friendly and profitable intercourse of such citizens of the state as are disposed to promote the aforesaid objects". To this day, the headquarters of the Indiana Historical Society has stayed within Indianapolis.
In 1831 the Society was granted a charter by the Indiana General Assembly, a charter for which the Society still exists. In the few years afterwards, two of the Society's prevalent backers died, and between its founding in 1830 and 1886, only twelve annual meetings were held to promote it. Its collections were located in the old Indiana State Bank and old Indiana State Capitol. The Society of those days was described by a historian to be "a small private club for publishing local history."
In 1886 the Society was reorganized under the direction of Jacob Piatt Dunn. With trusted associates, Jacob Dunn started the policy of annual meetings of the Society that continues to this day. Dunn was able to enthuse Hoosiers of several occupations to gather resources for the Society, focusing on editors, professional historians, lawyers, librarians and writers. However, Jacob Dunn's attempt to allow women to join the Society failed in 1888; it would not be until 1906 that a woman, editor Eliza Browning, would be admitted. Thanks to Dunn, the Indiana Historical Society had an office at the state capitol building from 1888 to 1914.
The Indiana Historical Society would continue to affect and be affected by the happenings of the Indiana Historical Bureau (originally the Indiana Historical Commission), the Indiana State Museum, and the Indiana State Library. The Society's executive secretaries would also act as directors of the Historical Bureau for over fifty years, from 1924 to 1976. This connection allowed the Indiana History Bulletin, controlled by the Historical Bureau, to be distributed to the members of the Society. (Members of the time also received a publication of Indiana University entitled Indiana Magazine of History). The will of philanthropist Delavan Smith in 1922 caused the Society to start its William Henry Smith Memorial Library, as he not only willed to the Society a vast sum of money, but a sizable collection of books as well. During the 1940s Howard Henry Peckham was the director of the Society and while there had established many professional standards in the field of Historical society work.
Beginning in the 1950s, the Indiana Historical Society started publishing works related to the history of Indiana. The most important of these works was the 1966 multi-volume set concerning the history of Indiana, in celebration of the sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary of Indiana's statehood. Other notable works included the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Old Northwest in 1950. In 2009, the IHS is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its award-winning quarterly, popular history magazine, Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History. It also publishes the family history magazine The Hoosier Genealogist: Connections twice a year.
By 1970 the membership of the Indiana Historical Society reached 5,000 members. The most noted of these was Eli Lilly, a longtime trustee, whose donations allowed for the obtainment of additional building additions in 1976. Lilly's bequest allowed the IHS to achieve its own identity with its offices and library occupying a floor in the addition. Also at this time, the IHS/Indiana Historical Bureau leadership was separated with the creation of the title of Executive Secretary being retained for the IHS leadership. Lilly's bequest helps the general financial welfare of the society to this day. By 1993 the membership rose to 10,000, with forty percent of the Society's members living in the Indianapolis metropolitan area.
For years, the headquarters was in the Indiana State Library and Historical Building, but in 1999 it moved to its current headquarters. The 165,000-square-foot building includes the 300-seat Frank and Katrina Basile Theater, the William Henry Smith Memorial Library, a vault to house the IHS's priceless collections, the Stardust Terrace Cafe, conservation and preservation imaging facilities, classrooms, the Basile History Market, the Cole Porter Room, Eli Lilly Hall and various exhibition spaces.
The IHS Collections and the William Henry Smith Memorial Library both preserve and make accessible one of the largest archival repositories of material on the history of Indiana and the Old Northwest, including 1.6 million photographs (500 visual collections), 45,000 cataloged printed items (books, pamphlets, etc.), 14,000 pieces of sheet music, 5,000 processed manuscript collections, 3,300 artifacts, 1,100 cataloged maps, 575 broadsides and 60 paintings. More than 37,000 digital images are currently available through the IHS Web site.
Also among the items held by the Society is a 130-year-old Bible used in 2008 to swear in Mayor Greg Ballard of Indianapolis. One of the most significant items in the IHS collections is the original glass-plate negative of an Abraham Lincoln photograph taken by Alexander Gardner just weeks before the Gettysburg address (this image was used as the model for the creation of the Abraham Lincoln National Memorial in Washington D.C.).
Subject strengths of the IHS collections (especially as they relate to Indiana and the Old Northwest) include Architecture, Agriculture, American Civil War, Business, Communities, Education, Ethnically and Racially Identified Groups, Families, Government, Journalism and Communications, Medicine, Military Affairs, Notable Hoosiers, Old Northwest Territory, Organized Labor, Politics, The Professions, Religion, Social Services, Transportation (Including Railroad and Interurban History) and Women.