What is Local History?

Type of resource:

Local history attempts to reconstruct the history of a place to understand how the way people lived connects to the community’s present and future.

–What isn’t local history?

The study of local history is not dominated by out-of-date antiquarians throwing together physical remains from the past without any focus on using their collections to bring change for the future. This form of superficial history allows historians to develop a pattern of conclusions without deeper engagement with local history in a comparative context. Worse, this stereotype of history does nothing to help us understand the dynamics of a place. These historians can take so narrow a view that they miss the insights history provides about our futures. By missing the opportunity to examine and interpret conclusions from historical evidence, historians are missing out on what local history does best.

–Why are so many people dedicated to studying local history?

Local history reflects the reality that our lives are shaped by particular places and that our physical place in the world is a major determinant to how our lives are lived. Local history is the study of the everyday struggles and triumphs of ordinary people. The study of local topics allows for in-depth research to connect the past with the present, which is done more simply and with more meaning than studying the national, faceless masses. It allows for greater depth in studying the history of our communities and the relations to the people within them.

–Why is this important?

History is typically taught with a focus on national and international events, but ignores the places students (of all ages) engage with most, their neighborhoods. Involving students in local history helps them to learn to analyze their place in larger events. By understanding their part in history, people become directly involved in their studies of the past. By focusing on local history, students will learn to question history as it has been taught and history as it is being made around them.

— How can I study my own local history?

Asking and answering questions about the history of a place helps us learn what questions to ask about our present and future. A starting point for studying your own local history can be asking:

  • Did the feeling of “community” exist? In what terms?
  • What impact did human activity have on the landscape?
  • How did they govern themselves?
  • What work did men, women and children do and how much choice did they have in this type of work?
  • What were their attitudes and relationships like towards outsiders?
  • How much did the physical setting determine opportunities for people?
  • How were the people educated?

Comment below to let us know why you study local history.

Katherine Buckingham served as 2013 summer intern for the Ohio Local History Alliance.