Local History as Literature
In the decades after the Civil War, local historical writing became a large- scale enterprise in every sense: in the materials used as sources, in the number of people involved in the preparation, in the array of subjects treated and in the sheer size and bulk of the published volumes. Such history became encyclopedic, as exhaustive as those who produced it could make it. The antiquarians had no doubt that their ceaseless quest for facts accurately recorded would result in an account showing their ancestors' admirable and successful efforts at community building, of which they were the proud inheritors.
But a question arose in the minds of some as to whether the lengthy or multivolume history was the only way to portray their community's past. Who read such huge tomes, beyond subscribers and library users? Was history meant to be something that appeared only in a reference book, in volumes perused and checked, but not widely read? How popular, how financially successful were published histories of hundreds or, if in several volumes, thousands of pages?
As early as 1887, Robison and Cockett, the local publishers of a history of Cleveland introduced their 510-page single volume work with the comment that "[in] endeavoring to profit by the experiences of the publishers of the histories of other cities, it was deemed most judicious to produce a book that could be sold at a price considerably less than that of the average local work of this kind. Voluminous and elaborate local histories, with their proportionately high cost, have not proved commercial successes.So large is the amount that you must read in these days to keep up with the times, that the majority of people find it necessary to select condensed treatments of subjects."(1) Though sensitive to the problem, Robison and Cockett did not choose a format that differed, except in its somewhat briefer treatment, from the prevailing mode: that is, a combination of chapters organized chronologically or topically and written by knowledgeable individuals.