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Individuals, both as producers and subjects of records, were more visible in the 20th century than in preceding periods. However, it is also true that this was a time of unprecedented government intervention in localities, whether in war or peacetime. The principal sources for local history reflect both these facts, and also the radical changes in the volume and variety of evidence brought by mass literacy and new media of recording and communication.

Some familiar sources continue (e.g. the Ordnance Survey). Others become unavailable (e.g. census enumerators’ returns, because of the 100 year rule on their release). Some sources cease, like tithe records of townscape, property ownership and land use, but alternatives may open up. In this case the release of the maps and documents of the 1910 ‘Domesday’ surveys and arrival of wide-ranging aerial photographic coverage both helped fill the information gap. Yet other sources, like local newspapers, continue but have changed in their coverage and  relevance. Some categories of record, like those of ecclesiastical institutions, staple evidence for local historians of earlier periods, have become less significant. Vivid pictures of local life may come from non-historical directions, including TV and film, or anthropological and sociological accounts, created in a contemporary context but now considered historically. Where more e-mails than letters are written, digital rather than film images are created, online news rather than newsprint is circulated, and material published on line rather than in books, new issues of record collection, storage and access arise. They have major consequences for local historians, whether they want to preserve recent and present evidence, or access that of the past.


Principal sources for recent local studies: a checklist


 Personal and literary records

·         oral history

·         letters, diaries, autobiographies, novels, written recollections

·         journalism

·         photographs, video and film (personal and commercial, documentary and fictional)


 Central government records

·         population statistics

·         health

·         housing

·         education

·         employment

·         transport

·         crime


 Local government and public institutions

·         county, borough, district and parish councils

·         schools

·         hospitals and medical services

·         licensing authorities (including vehicles and pubs)

·         police forces


 Local commercial and voluntary organisations

·         business records

·         trades unions

·         sports clubs

·         music associations

·         allotment and gardening societies

·         women's organisations (Women's Institute, Mother's Union, Townswomen's Guilds)

·         youth groups (Guides, Scouts, Woodcraft Folk)

·         political parties


 Physical environment

·         standing buildings

·         landscape

·         roads, railways, airfields


Hard to categorise, but also telling evidence are the ephemera of everyday life (produced in unprecedented amounts in the twentieth-century and including adverts, notices, leaflets, tickets, bills, receipts)


Readers will find a thorough catalogue, particularly of more formal, public records in Evelyn Lord, Investigating the twentieth century. Sources for local historians (1999).  

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