The international language of local history: Elephants and ducks, feet instead of roots

Eighteen local and regional historians from around the world gathered in London at the Institute of Historical Research in July 2009 for what was described by the organisers, the Victoria County History, as 'the first symposium designed to look at the different ways in which local and regional history is practised in different regions of the world'.

Reflecting back upon the two days, what seemed to emerge were differing 'world views' on how local (and regional) history is practised, its purpose and how professional historians perceive non-professionals, with the English being quite critical, whilst the Norwegians and Scots seemed to have a more positive, embracing, attitude.

There were some contributions which seemed to arouse little interest, perhaps because they were too narrowly focused and did not address the issue of how local and regional history is practised in a particular country, or offered little by way of interpretation, which is what motivated many of those who spoke to attend. From historians in America, Australia, England, France, Hungary, Ireland, Japan, Scotland, South Africa and Wales came descriptions of approaches to local history which revealed a commonality when it came to origins and present-day challenges.

On the first day, Professor Vivian Beckford-Smith set the tone of the symposium with his paper, 'Visiting the Local in South African Urban Historiography'. He characterised the country's local histories 'as chronicles of progress and myths… which buttressed the achievements of white English speaking (and Afrikaan) people'. A history of Durban, for example, claimed that it had been visited by Phoenicians as a way of reinforcing the territorial legitimacy of whites' claims to the land. For me, settlement and the role historians played in justifying what had happened by concentrating on the achievements of the occupiers became a recurring theme at the symposium. The English (and others of course) occupied and claimed land that either belonged to others, or was deemed by the indigenous population as something held in common, be it in America, Australia, Ireland or South Africa. You could also argue that they did it in Wales (and still are) and in England and Scotland too with the inclosure acts. Land and ownership also featured in papers from France, Hungary, Japan and Norway.

In Australia, local history also developed a 'trans-national' character, which enabled historians and communities to feel part of a global community or of the British Empire at least. Early histories drew on the memories of early settlers and led to 'municipal histories', which celebrated the progress and achievements of the pioneers. In 1954 this was described by Colin Blaine, an Australian historian, as 'Scissors and paste history'. In the 1960s, however, social local histories began to appear, which offered a different view of the past, more questioning, more radical, and in the 1990s 'cross-cultural, multi-layered local histories began to appear, including work by native Australians' which raised the issue of how land was taken from the Aborigines.

I rather liked Professor Erik Eklund's reference to 'the political economy of academic knowledge production' in his paper 'Localities, local history and knowledge production: Accessing vernacular history in Australia beyond the capital cities'. His argument is that because the largest, richest universities are based in state capitals, this tends to make these cities the main focus of research and that trans-national histories are 'more career valuable'. Similarly, large metropolitan councils employ more historians and archivists than smaller, more isolated, municipalities. In other words, there are powerful interests at work in determining what professional local historians devote their time to.

Katalin Szende

Katalin Szende, Central European University, Budapest, Hungary.

Professor Katalin Szende from Hungary presented a fascinating account of a country where local history has been practised for a long time and where they have had to cope with changing borders as the political map of central Europe has changed and populations have moved. She also revealed that in the same year as the Victoria County History was founded in England, the Hungarians were embarking on their own 'Description of the Counties and Towns of Hungary' series, which continued until 1914. During the inter-war years the focus was on medieval Hungary in relation to 'modern' Hungary and during the post-war Communist period (1945–1989), local history 'became the domain of the Patriotic People's Front, which was an organisation for channelling and controlling local civic activity'. The fall of communism and a series of national anniversaries has led to a revival of interest in local history and a belief that it 'can be used to bind disparate groups together by showing their origins'. She also said that the growing (popular) interest in local history in 'local communities or smaller geographical areas' could be 'a possible reaction to globalisation'. It was an observation the Symposium did not respond to, nor did it discuss globalisation or localism at any time. Both of these impact on local history and both could be used to its advantage. By now I realised that two days would not be enough and that the occasion had too few participants to ensure that all the issues which needed to be discussed would be raised, even if only to be put on ice until some future event.

Throughout the Symposium's two days and four sessions other guests were sometimes present, with the numbers swelling to over forty when it came to hearing Carol Kammen from America talk about local history 'Beyond Boundaries'. Her contribution was probably the most challenging to be placed before the Symposium, making the point that when local history began in America it was about land and establishing ownership of that land. As long ago as 1884, when the American Historical Association was founded, the claim was made that there was no longer a role for the amateur historian. The 1950s witnessed a growing preservation movement which was led by activists and, at about the same time, local history began to change, especially with the coming of new social histories in the 1960s, stemming from what Carol described as 'the second civil war' about liberty and justice for all. The period also fuelled an interest in women's history and Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley in 1976 changed the way people felt about genealogy. In 1936 there were 586 historical societies and local museums in America. in 2000 there were over 17,000, 75% of them founded since 1975. Now many of them are closing. For many, running their organisation has become more important than research and thinking about local history. There are exceptions, where the visitor is treated as a participant, not a consumer, but these 'new approaches to history can give the impression to some that their history is being changed'.

Carol Kammen

Carol Kammen, Cornell University, USA.

Carol saw these and other topics as borders to be crossed and cited other examples, including the work of public historians, whose ideas fail to engage many local historians; they have also yet to find common ground with family historians or the preservationists and there was little activity when it came to comparative local history. Among the topics yet to be addressed by American local historians were the environment, poverty, modernisation and the democratisation of participation and empowerment. Carol concluded by referring to the role now played by nationwide local history publishers, who work to a format, making the point that in these times local historians are going to end up paying for new archive services just as they pay for books. She also touched on the role that online 'wikis'* might play in the future, echoing something Professor John Beckett had said about VCH's new wiki. During the all too short discussion which followed, there were references to the similarities between what was happening in America and what was happening elsewhere.

On the second day Dr. Andrew Edwards from Bangor University gave a very informative paper on 'Local or national history? The historiography of modern Wales' and expressed his sadness at the lack of comparative local histories within the United Kingdom, partly because funders preferred to see such work undertaken in relation to other Celtic regions in Europe. He also made the point that there were now fewer professional historians, resources were being cut and libraries had shorter opening hours. I suspect this is true the world over. There are reputations to protect and careers to be made. Amateur local historians, on the other hand, are free to please themselves. He bemoaned the 'lack of contact between professional and local historians in Wales and cited as an example a year long project being organised in partnership with Bangor City Football Club in the Community, Bangor Civic Society, Gwynedd Museum and the British Oral History Society. The project will involve a group of young people learning about Bangor City Football Club’s history and sharing it with others in the local community and had been awarded a £24,900 HLF Young Roots grant. All this happened without any contact being made with Bangor University, where he works. As he said during his presentation, Welsh local history leans towards non-conformity and politics ― a radical Wales ― and has been 'more collectivist, more community orientated', with Welsh language and Welsh history coming quite late to the scene. 'Lots of local histories have gone unwritten or researched because they did not fit with national stereotypes', but this was changing. Wales is now a different country, socially and politically, where 'Local history faces different challenges. It needs to become more reflective, to examine its own myths.' Looking at the nodding heads around the room as Andrew said this, I felt that others at the Symposium understood not only a little more about local history in Wales, but about what was happening in their own country.

Finn-Einar Eliassen

Finn-Einar Eliassen, Vestfold University College, Norway.

Professor Finn-Einar Eliassen from Norway described its local history as 'a voluntary movement, an academic discipline and a major branch of publication'. He explained that 'modern' local history in Norway began in 1905 when the union with Sweden came to an end and that it was divided into genres: Farms and rural; Settlement and emigration; Towns and county regions and 'Yearbooks' ― with some 400 of the latter being published by 'voluntary local historians' each year. He also said that community and neighbourhood histories (eg. in Oslo) sell better than county or city-wide histories and that 'The sense of (local) identity seems stronger the smaller the community'. He went on to say that academic journals were seen as 'a mechanism for transferring skills from professional historians to voluntary historians'. He also made the point that many voluntary historians were qualified professionals in their own right. It was something he was to say more than once during the two days, especially in response to those with less generous views of local historians they insisted on calling 'amateur'.

There were two speakers from Ireland, Professor David Dickson and Professor Raymond Gillespie, the second of whom argued that 'Local history is eclectic… it is the story of people in a place over time (and) it needs to be a story to be believed. Good stories draw people into a past which they can relate to their experiences today.' His reflections on the origins and development of local history in Ireland revealed its roots in Protestant gentry and catholic clerics. The rise of the clergy, which coincided with the 19th century growth in nationalism, saw them, with encouragement from the Church, become the writers of local history and commence a search for 'common ground' between Catholics and Protestants ― this was something which the United Kingdom also did in Northern Ireland, where local history was seen as a way of drawing people together. As local history is Ireland becomes more democratised, ;the old tension between the gentry and the clergy is being replaced by a professional / amateur tension' said Professor Gillespie.

So much was said about Ireland which prompted questions that went unanswered but, almost as an aside, the point was made that university based local history courses are good because they earn much needed income. It was yet another occasion during the Symposium when something of import passed without comment. Perhaps it was seen as a statement of the obvious. The question which lodged in my head was, is this how professional historians have seen local history? As a 'cash cow' to be milked, only a discipline whilst the money lasts? The rate at which English universities have abandoned local history suggests that income has been a dominant factor in their interest. In which case, it might reasonably be argued that, in England at least, the voluntary local historians are the true keepers of the faith.

Mark Mulhern told the Symposium about how he and his colleagues at Edinburgh University's European Ethnological Research Centre (EERC) were engaged in the promotion of research into Scottish life, especially through their 'Flashback' and 'Sources in Local History' series of publications, which reprint the diaries and account books of farm folk and tradesmen in full, unedited, so that they can be used by local historians and others. This more open approach had already resulted in non-historians learning new skills, gaining confidence in the process and seeing themselves as local historians. Not all those listening to Mark shared his enthusiasm for this more participative approach to local history. Professor Christopher Dyer from England said 'Local history is often worthy, but lacks academic rigour… there are conventions which need to be respected'. This prompted Finn-Einar Eliassen to reiterate his point about the skills and status of non-professional local historians, adding 'People don't have roots, they have feet… Mobility is a big factor (and) part of the character of a place'. In England, after thirty years of university based local history certificates, diplomas, MAs and PhDs, there must be hundreds of local history practitioners with all the 'rigour' needed to be the equal of any historian who is lucky enough to be paid. Unfortunately this went unsaid.

The final Symposium workshop saw four American historians address a range of local history related topics, with Professor Annette Atkins asking the question 'Is All History Really Local History? Is All Local History Really History?' She was particularly interested in who was telling the story and how they were telling it. In England, we might talk about how we select the facts we choose to use, that all local history is subjective. It is something we need to remember. Dr. David Danbom chose to speak about 'Sleeping with the Elephants, the Dictatorship of the Professoriat, and Other Pitfalls of Doing Local History in the United States' and made the point that 'understanding localities enriches (our) understanding of national history'. Dr Danborn said that one has to be prepared for how local people regard their own history and described confronting some local myths as akin to 'sleeping with elephants'. For example, Fargo, North Dakota, thinks of itself as self-reliant and classless, but when David Danbom studied the Great Depression in Fargo this is not what he found. At other times one has to duck issues and compromises have to be made. Professor Connie Schulz spoke about 'Local History and Public History: The Professionalisation of Local History in the US', explaining how public history was born in the 1970s when there was a lack of jobs for trained historians, so they turned to the public sector for work doing 'applied history'. There are now over one hundred public history programs in American universities where historians are trained with specific skills and and emerge expecting to work co-operatively. She believes that public history provides a bridge between locals and academics.

The Symposium came to an end with a plenary session led by Professor John Beckett, Director of Victoria County History and the person whose idea the Symposium was. He pulled the themes which emerged from the two days together: the relationship between local and national history and how he saw them coming together in VCH; the impact of local studies on indigenous people in Australia, South Africa and America, the impact of politics and governments, the importance of urban history and, of course, the relationship between amateur and professional historians. He asked two questions: Is local history academically respectable? and, after the Symposium, where to next? Those present wanted to continue the discussion they had started and to expand the group.

From the perspective of an outsider, who was allowed to attend the Symposium with a view to writing a report for Local History Online and Local History Magazine (which was, in some respects, a brave decision by VCH), I thought the English professionals who spoke were generally more defensive of the their status than their colleagues. Others were more open. I would have liked to have seen some other English local historians present, such as David Hey and Carl Chinn to name two. Much came out of two days and in the limited space I have available I have tried to concentrate on ideas and issues ― not chronologies or statements. John Beckett is to be commended for his vision and it will be interesting to see who picks up the baton. Perhaps Norway or Scotland? America I suspect. Whatever happens, the future of local history has been changed. How we will not know for some time. For my part, the word 'amateur' has been dumped in the rubbish bin. From now on, we are all local historians.

Robert Howard

20 July 2009

*A website that allows collaborative editing of its content and structure by its users.

NOTE: If you are interested in knowing more about local history in other countries, then visit the Norwegian website:, which has a 'Local History World Wide:
An International Internet Inventory'. There entries for some European countries and the USA, although its ambition is to have entries for every country.

Speakers referred to in this report (in order first mentioned)
Professor Vivian Beckford-Smith, Cape Town University, South Africa.
Professor Erik Eklund, Monash University, Australia.
Professor Katalin Szende, Central European University, Budapest, Hungary.
Carol Kammen, Cornell University, USA.
Professor John Beckett, VCH, England.
Dr. Andrew Edwards, Bangor University, Wales.
Professor Finn-Einar Eliassen, Vestfold University College, Norway.
Professor David Dickson, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland.
Professor Raymond Gillespie, National University of Ireland.
Mark Mulhern, Edinburgh University, Scotland.
Professor Christopher Dyer, Leicester University, England.
Professor Annette Atkins, College of St Benedict and St John's University, USA.
Dr. David Danbom, North Dakota State University, USA.
Professor Connie Schulz , South Carolina University, USA.

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