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Local History

You may just be curious about your area or some other reason, maybe you wish to know more about your house and immediate area, perhaps the area your family or ancestors grew up. Maybe you have another theme or interest that is driving you to look into local history.

Local history research can involve visiting buildings, looking at maps, looking at old photographs or delving into archive records. If the time you are interested in is within anyone's living memory then perhaps you can visit people and hear first hand recollections, or perhaps learn what other have discovered through their individual research or find out the collective knowledge available at a Local History Society.

In the past some thought of this as a dull and academic pursuit, where you just echoed what others have said, but today many of us question what we see, knowing that history has often been misreported, either because of a bias, perhaps by making facts fit around a theory or the need to put an immediate explanation to what, at the time, could not be understood. Then too often one person just echoed another, so it became the accepted view, but still wrong.

Some years ago now I wrote a number of books on family history topics, and many magazine articles, in those days for printed magazines, covering both family history and local history. I discovered very many occurrences of mistakes being echoed, and made a point of checking and double checking every fact.  Today as I visit many places and read different information, there are numerous occasions when the information does not line up with what I have seen elsewhere, so one or other is wrong or incomplete. This means that you have to both filter what you see written, but also be prepared to change your conception of other information you have previously accepted when new knowledge throws new light into the gloom of time. Some of recorded history, and some of what we all accept is just plain wrong.

If you were to be given a seat on my time machine, and could come back with me as a ghost like being and observe unseen, you would discover both differences in recorded history and greater variation than the standardised views we have. As you accept life generally as life is today, most people in past times did the same, and you would find most people are happy, and far more people are actively involved in group activities, and there are far more celebrations, by today's standard non stop parties.

So as a time detective, your trip into local history is like a journey to a familiar but still foreign holiday destination, you know your way around, understand some of the customs and can just about make sense of the language, but while familiar there can still be problems to overcome. Like a trip away the better you are prepared the smoother things go.

Information is available from a large range of sources including:-

  • Internet searches

  • Internet special interest sites

  • Walking around the area and internet mapping systems

  • Geograph

  • Books and magazines

  • Places open to the public

  • Local museums and speciality museums

  • Local studies libraries

  • County or local archives

  • Local History Societies

  • There may be local courses for those with a local interest.

The first of this group are all activities you can do on your own, like internet searches and look at special interest sites, looking at Geograph images for the area and taking a walk around the area and looking at online mapping systems such as Google and Multimap. When using search facilitates, use a variety of words, and change their order, you will find two people searching will often comes across different material, so looking at more various options may throw up more. Using aerial photographs and where available the other specialist views, as well as looking at online Ordnance Survey maps will show you a great deal about the area, you get to see what is behind walls, trees and can often see field marks of past activities. 

Googles' Streetview allows you to travel along very many streets including many now well out of towns and to look around. As you move backwards and forwards and change the camera view, look up or down as well as and zoom in and out. I now use this a lot, for checking out areas before visiting, looking to see what an area is like, checking the parking and even taking a look at places I may stop and eat at in an area. With the 'Then and Now' photography, its also allowed me to both identify places I had not been able to before and also to check what changes had occurred since the last time I visited, allowing me to know which places would be worth another visit. If you haven't used this, its simple to use you just click on the small orange man and drag him to the street you want to look at on the map or aerial view. While you can see more by visiting than with Streetview it makes a great impact by allowing you to narrow down where its worth exploring further.

In most areas there is a local museum, and most have an interesting collection of information about their area, but often they have only room to display a fraction of their overall collection. Generally it is worth, at an early point, getting a look at what's on display, and then later when you have looked at other sources and have a better idea of specific things you would like to see, coming back and asking questions. You will find they have all their material catalogued and this often includes photographs and manuscripts as well as artefacts. These will be available for private study but you are likely to need to make an appointment to see them.

Local study libraries are often attached to reference libraries, but sometimes in separate buildings. In some places you will find its a part of the library. Local study libraries are a cross between a library and an archive, containing books on local topics and specialist topics that are relevant to the area, perhaps railways or other transport topics. Many have collections of press cuttings, or back copies of newspapers, magazines and trade directories. They may also have copies of some archive material, manuscripts, studies others have done and lodged copies with them and a range of other material.  Many have large collections of older maps, so you can see how the area has developed over time. In some areas there may be more than one with an over lapping coverage of the area. To identify where they are, start by asking at the largest reference library near to you.

County or local archives have more standardised collections of records, and have been in existence far longer and usually have better funding than local study libraries. The actual split between what local information is in the County Record Office may vary dependent on how large the local study library is.  We have a listing,  Record Offices,  of these. Generally its better to start with the local study library for very local items, but you may find some is in the County Archives, in particular past church registers and official documentation, as well as much of the far older material. You will find some cities have their own Record Office but the County Archivists will be able to tell you where this is applicable. County archives are often very popular yet small places, so in many cases you will need to book a seat in advance, once there you will find the archivists are helpful in both telling you where to look and helping you to understand the records, many also have a range of leaflets explaining the different record types they have.

There are very many Local History Societies, some with over overlapping areas or interests. While a village has probably a Local History Society or group, towns and cities may divide up the interest amongst a number of groups with different names. Usually local reference libraries will have a handout on the clubs and societies in their area or can tell you where to look for contact information. Local study librarians will also be able to tell you about what is active in the area. We are currently building a list of some of the Local History Societies there will be more that we have yet to discover.

Local courses are put on as a part of adult education by further education departments, in colleges, and local libraries, museums and other local organisations may organise courses. Often its not a problem finding courses, but it can be difficult deciding which is applicable to your area of interest.


By: Keith Park  Section: Reference Key:
Page Ref: Local_history Topic: Reference and Organisation Last Updated: 08/2010

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