The Many Faces of Local History

By Sprague, Stuart Seely | The Historian, Summer 1993 | Go to article overview

The Many Faces of Local History

Sprague, Stuart Seely, The Historian

Local history has an immediacy that national history lacks. We can see it and interview local people about it. For example, when we view the 1930s from the local level, the New Deal becomes human, concrete, and understandable, no longer just a bunch of forgettable statistics - billions in expenditure, millions of unemployed. We are reminded daily by buildings built in the 1930s and often still in use. When we start gathering miaterial locally, we are not limited to resources available in the community. The Farm Security Administration's photographs taken by a superb staff who crisscrossed the country are famous. Also, the National Archives has published a preliminary inventory of the records of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the correspondence relating to post office murals has been preserved, and the papers of contemporary congressmen often include photographs of WPA projects in their state arranged by congressional district.

Local history provides great opportunities to research, write, or teach history. Grants are available for state or local subjects, especially if they can be tied to a school's mission and/or service region. Geographical area can be compared to the local community or state. Even if grants are unavailable, it is less costly to go to the county courthouse and the local library than to travel to distant cities with high-cost motels, meals, and expenses. The Carter County Bugle and the Olive Hill Times have never been confused with the New York Times, but such local papers obviously cover the northeastem Kentucky firebrick clay industry, including its baseball team, the Brickies, far better than the paper claiming to publish "all the news fit to print." Nationally significant local figure about whom historians have not written may suddenly appear. At the state and local levels there are few competitors, and every state has one or more historical quarterlies with new and interesting material.

In 1991, the Chronicle of Higher Education questioned historians of World War II about the subjects needing further study We don't have ... in-depth, shop floor, local studies," one responded. Such studies are publishable, especiafly if they have the subtitle "A Case Study" and show how a particular locale fits into - or fails to fit into - larger, well-accepted patterns. Some of the more notable works on colonial America are local studies, and this is true of later time periods as well. A review of Phi Alpha Theta publications displayed at the 1991 convention revealed that Michelle Spence-Scott's "State or Private: Factors That Influenced the Direction of Slippery Rock University and Grove City College" was a prize winner, and most of the papers in the spring 1991 issue of the UVM History Review dealt with Vermont history.

Local History trades chronological specialization for spatial specialization. The database, if properly designed, can help answer many questions. Thanks to the computer's search command, we can pull out all sorts of information. National historians rarely use deed books, wills, vital records, fiscal court records, county histories including the notorious mug books, minutes of social, religious, and cultural organizations, state and federal court records and censuses, and collections of prominent families, all of which are indispensable to local historian.

Local history wears many faces. At first one may wish to stay within a chronological field, explore its local dimension, and write an article, so as to bring some expertise to an area that has received little historical attention. What one writes may be of such, interest to the local newspaper that the project leads to a regular column.

Local history can improve off-campus teaching experiences. Such sites usually lack adequate library resources, but by having students work on local history, they learn to interview, dig into wills and deeds, and appreciate the value of area newspapers. One such set of student papers led to Essays in Eastern Kentucky History (1984). …

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