Situating Local History Scholarship

I have realized that local history scholarship is often met with a dismissive sort of condescension by some historians. If you are self-identified as a scholar of local history you are often received within the academy as professionally akin to a ‘backyard archaeologist” i.e. someone who digs in his own garden in search of relics rather than going elsewhere—anywhere—to execute a “proper” dig. Truth be told, I do not believe that this is in any way a fair assessment and I shall try to deconstruct this notion and attempt to reinstitute another, more equitable one in favour of situating local history scholarship as an undervalued, arguably emergent and understudied field within the greater history academy. For one thing, history’s “Big Events” are universally recognized and are undeniably familiar to the common layperson and history scholar, alike. All I need to say are things like: the Black Death, the French Revolution, the Civil War and immediately one conjures images related to one’s knowledge (or “myth-knowledge”)  of a long-standing tradition of well-documented and perhaps over-popularized event(s). In historic scholarship (independent of historic fiction) key figures or “players,” so to speak, appear as the “stars” of these events, common men and women or royal pedigree notwithstanding, each possessing the familiar qualities of Hollywood-esque characters. Figures such as Henry VIII, Julius Caesar and Abraham Lincoln are often examined, analyzed and portrayed in “bigger-than-life” scholarly fashion as if they were the dei ex machina–the gods from the machine—with the machine being the history academy, itself, as the proselytizer of the “traditional norms” of historic scholarship. It is not my intent to appear harsh, here. On the contrary, I am attempting to exemplify the universal mass appeal of traditional history scholarship as it relates to relatively familiar subjects (including facts, dates and events). What my argument is, is this: perhaps these subjects are familiar because this is what/who/when/where historians are studying and writing about rather than the other way around. In truth, what historian would actually set out to study or investigate someone or something of which he was not at least marginally interested? I sincerely hope none. With respect to local history scholarship, its initial appeal may indeed be limited to those who are curious about the community in which they live. This curiosity may appear after passing a landmark building or stopping by to read a heritage plaque. Other times, the search begins with from a desire to research an ancestor or local public figure, tying into a local story or legend that is somewhat familiar. The question as to why a person becomes interested in local history is in some ways arguably moot. After all, all history is local somewhere in time and space. Perhaps, on one hand, the biggest difference between studying local history versus studying more familiar or traditional historical topics like “the Romans” or “the Middle Ages” is that it may somehow seem less important in the grand scheme of things. Local historians, it may be argued, study the “little stories” rather than “big stories.” I would suggest, however, that any historian is engaged, in part, in the study of little stories. Little stories that add up to big stories, that is, since one could argue that big stories, then, are merely a compendium of many little stories or Histories.  When walking through the local park or down my street I want to know where its name came from. When I read a heritage plaque or visit a local community museum, I want to know more about the stories in my own backyard because it tells me about where I live and how it developed over time. Better still, I want to know how it started and who started it. I am looking for how I belong in my community. I am looking for meaning. I cannot pretend that I don’t relish sitting down with a good scholarly account of Elizabethan England or Bronze Age Britain. I love to study and read what others have studied and I fully appreciate their contribution to the scholarship of historical figures and events. I merely make the case that local history historians also contribute to the scholarship of history—it’s just that they do it from their own back yards rather than from someone else’s front porch, so to speak. I am proud to say that I, a local historian, will continue to advocate for the re-evaluation of local history scholarship in the academy. The little stories I share are the accounts of people’s lives from the past in the present and it is my intent to catalogue them for future reference—call it my community’s legacy. After all, if artifacts tell a story, why aren’t stories artifacts? A few images of Joanna’s local history in Canada:

local history 1Left: The local school in Autumn. Right: A photo of Joanna making maple syrup the old fashioned way 

local historyDoors Open Waterloo Region 2012: This is a cultural provincial event that takes place throughout the summer of each year and each region in Ontario feature different local history sites–some old, some new. This is a photo of the inside of the 1820 log schoolhouse (i.e. the namesake of Joanna’s blog).

local history 3Left: Inside of a traditional Pennsylvania German log house. Right: Inside of a traditional Pennsylvania German bakehouse

Source: ©Joanna Rickert-Hall

Are you passionate about local history? Tell us in the comments box below!

More from Joanna Rickert-Hall

Situating Local History Scholarship

I have realized that local history scholarship is often met with a...
Read More

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *