While recently writing an article on local history for publication in an academic journal, I realized that the scholarship of local history is often met with a dismissive sort of condescension by some historians. Somehow, it seemed to me, that if you were a scholar of local history you were sometimes 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 or Hitler, 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 what has become the traditional norms of historic scholarship.
Now, 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. For example, who ever heard about a history course about old Joe, the pioneer huntsman who singlehandedly built his log cabin after clearing a road through the woods get to his land? I venture to say, NOBODY! Now, old Joe might show up as a fictionalized character in a mini-series like the Hatfield’s & McCoy’s, but if he does it won’t be as the star of the story. Instead, it will be as a sub-character within the main plot. But, what if old Joe was the runaway ex-slave of a plantation owner, so onerous that he had been murdered by his slaves who fled in fear of their lives, some of whom made their way to freedom in Canada through the Underground Railroad? This story might be more interesting and therefore more worthy of further investigation—perhaps by someone who was a scholar within the field of African-American/Canadian History. 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 the scholarship of local history, its initial appeal may indeed be limited to those who are curious about the community in which they live. This may come about after passing a designated landmark building or stopping by to read a blue heritage plaque in front of it. Other times, the search starts from a need to research or find out about an ancestor or local public figure and may tie 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 a more important question begs an answer—why study history in the first place? Do we want to discover a bunch of facts and then keep them to ourselves? Certainly not for most scholars—the whole point is to publish and share their findings or theories. In other words, the key point of good scholarship is to inform or as I would coin it: make history accessible--either as a topic of conversation, thought or something warranting further investigation, for the general public as well as other historians. That way, the scholarship moves forward and grows. So does its purported status and educational value.
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.” To the local historian, the little stories add up and in part, help to form and inform others about their community’s identity and cultural heritage fabric close to home and even sometimes abroad when one stops to consider the effect that local history scholarship may have on tourism and the local economy. 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.
One could argue that the big stories, then, are merely a compendium of a lot of little stories or Histories—some of these histories are lesser known than others which is why some of us study local history. When walking through the local park, I want to know how it came to be. When I walk 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 the Bronze Age in 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.
When local (regional or federal) governments cut the budgets of community museums or vote to tear down significant heritage buildings that are replete with little (and sometimes big) stories, I am both saddened and dismayed at the apparent short-sightedness but am nonetheless even more aware that local history is rarely valued. Think, for example, of someone deciding to tear down Westminster Abbey because they wanted to build a new highway straight through it. It just wouldn’t happen but on a local level, this kind of rampant disregard for “old buildings” often is synonymous with “collateral damage” in the name of progress. I cannot help but wonder if more local historians published their scholarship and garnered more public awareness and respect for their work perhaps this short-sightedness of governments (and the general public) would abate or at the very least, slow down so we could slow down, re-group and take value back from what we may be losing as a result of so-called budgetary cuts.
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 and by the general public by living it, writing about it and teaching it to all I encounter. 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?