Local History: A Starter Guide

local historyLooking for a new project or hobby?

Why not consider researching one or more aspects of local history?

Why do it?

Be warned:  this can be addictive!

It’s certainly a fascinating activity, and isn’t only a great learning experience helping us to keep the grey matter alert, but also provides the opportunity to add to the wealth of local history knowledge that makes up our nation’s story.

Local history studies have become increasingly popular over the past few decades and many people who started to research their own family history have gone on to become ‘hooked’ on local history as well.

After all, if a parent or grandparent worked in a local industry or country house you might want to know about their employers, their working life and conditions. Never think “oh, why bother, it’s all been done before” – that just isn’t true.

Sure, if you look in your local public library you will find a wide selection of local history books, but many of these provide an overview of different aspects of local history, not an in-depth study of one aspect, so there’s a lot of detail out there still to be discovered.

Potential subject matter for local history research is vast.

Who can do it?

Anyone. If travelling around is no problem, you can get out and do some ‘on-the-ground’ detective work to rival Scotland Yard!

If you aren’t so mobile, there’s loads of information to be found on the internet, by writing letters or by asking other people via social media – or talking to them on the phone!

What project should I undertake?

The choice is yours and will perhaps be based on an interest you already have. The following are just some suggestions:

  • The history of a local landmark, such as a country house, village hall, church, school or hospital
  • A local industry (whether still operational or not)
  • Transport in the area – a canal, railway line, road, airport or bus station
  • The local market/shops – and shopping habits over the centuries
  • Creation of a New Town
  • Your town/village in wartime
  • Changes in your area – such as the building of housing estates or the demise of farming/industry/new industries
  • Provision of charity – such as workhouses or almshouses
  • Local sports – a football, cricket or athletics club (you might already be a supporter!)
  • Special events held in the locality – such as fairs

These are just some ideas.

So how do I go about it?

This is a project for anyone (see ‘Who Can Do It?’ above). If you are able to, visiting the place(s) you are researching is, of course, a good idea, and questions/points to ponder will occur to you when you do, so take a notebook and perhaps a camera or use your phone.

But there are other ways you can conduct your investigations, too, such as speaking to people face to face, searching via the internet, e-mailing or writing letters to organisations or local newspapers asking for help (newspapers will often print letters asking for help from someone undertaking local research – but keep them brief because there will be space constraints), or perhaps getting in touch via the phone.

It goes without saying to use the internet if you have access, and don’t be discouraged if an initial search is not helpful – think laterally and try re-phrasing your search request. This can make a difference, so don’t be discouraged.

It’s vital to never neglect the other fantastic sources that are out there – such as Record Offices, which are wonderful repositories of historical records such as old photographs, maps, event programmes, all kinds of historical documents, letters, books, Minute books and so on.

whitby-abbey

Museums and Community History Archives are also well worth approaching and always helpful. If you are lucky enough to have a Record Office not too far away, you may be able to do some of your research by means of a personal visit, but do check with them before going along, as you will probably need to apply for a Reader’s Ticket and proof of identity will be required.

Record Offices often provide a search service for those unable to visit to conduct research in person, but be aware there is likely to be a charge for this, so always check in advance. Also check if the Record Office offers free computer access for visitors during any visits, as this could be useful while you are there.

Remember the benefits of taking photographs, too, in order to add that extra interest to your research. If you aren’t able to get out and about to do this yourself, perhaps a friend or relative is a keen photographer, or you could ask around – local College students studying media or photography might be willing to get involved by taking some photos for you.

Anything else?

Yes – keep records. Make notes of the source of all your research findings, showing the date(s), names and details of informants, titles of books & authors, etc. There’s nothing worse than remembering a vital piece of information, but not being able to remember how/when/where you obtained it.

Remember also that many people are happy to share information – for example if you are researching a local industry or a manor house, is it possible there are still people out there who were employees, or perhaps their parents or grandparents worked there? They may have mementos or photos that they might be happy to share.

Be prepared for a few false starts in your research, but this is all part of the enjoyment and a great learning curve! With a bit of tenacity in your approach and by not being afraid to ask for help from others the solution is usually out there somewhere.

What should I do with my research material?

You might be researching simply for your own personal satisfaction – many people do. But wouldn’t it be great to share your discoveries with others? Could you hold an exhibition at a local hall for example?

Or if you live in a retirement complex and subject to logistics, might you be able to stage an Open Morning or Afternoon so that others can see the results of all your hard work? Of course, if you intend to display any copies of material obtained from other informants do get their permission first.

This type of project is never truly finished, always a ‘work in progress’ as there’s never a cut-off point for history and always more discoveries to make, so keep adding to your knowledge – and sharing it.

You might consider starting – or joining – a Local History Group, or you might think about putting the results of all your researches into a book…….but that’s another project!

Author: Margaret Mills – speaker profile and available talks here.

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