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A J Aiséirithe, Reference Librarian, History and Genealogy Section
Created: Sept. 30, 2019
Last Updated: Feb. 26, 2021
This guide includes such topics as: why do or read local history; how to do local history; local history as a field of study; local history both in relation to and distinct from genealogy, and resources for local history of places mainly within the United States.
There are many reasons to read and to write local history. Here are some of the reasons suggested by people who have done both.
"Any understanding of the world must begin at home--or end there." --Siegfried Lenz, The Heritage, 1981.
" .... Local history...provides the natural link between immediate experience and general history." -- Carol Kammen, The Pursuit of Local History: Readings on Theory and Practice, 1996
"In the writing and study of...local history...lie the grass roots of...civilization. [Local history] is key to uncovering the history of the nondominant and inarticulate, as well as to trace the influence of the environment, natural and cultural." -- Constance McLaughlin Green, "The Value of Local History," in The Cultural Approach to History, ed. Caroline F. Ware, 1940
"Local history carries with it the potential to reconstruct our ancestors' everyday lives." -- Joseph Amato, Rethinking Home: A Case for Writing Local History, 2002.
"No community has a singular historical past. Every community has versions of the past that reflect varying opinions and many different perceptions of what happened and why." -- Carol Kammen, Plain as a Pipestem: Essays about Local History, 1989.
Local history and genealogy often overlap. Many local histories were written by descendants of a place's first settlers or prominent residents. Even those histories whose authors are unrelated to their subjects often provide details on settlers, business owners, residents, elected officials or others--details still for the most part not found anywhere else. In this way they offer valuable resources for anyone researching their families and ancestors who, after all, lived in a particular place at a particular time.
Apart from the ways local histories offer details on specific people in a particular place and time, local history offers valuable insight into a great many other aspects of the past. Local histories illuminate foodways and culinary traditions, often rooted in particular microclimates and geographies. They highlight musical and other artistic traditions and cultures. They shed light on labor history and forms and cultures of work such as farming, mining, railroads, meatpacking, canneries, fishing, weaving, and more. They offer crucial insight on patterns of economic development. Local histories show how nationwide events, such as wars or economic downturns, were experienced differently in different places. Local histories also highlight the ways that local political cultures can influence broader trends.