You are here: Original Evidence: Documents

Why original evidence?
A study of local history inevitably involves use of original evidence. However much a place has been studied, or a theme or neighbouring area explored, there will be uninvestigated aspects or incomplete interpretations which will take you back to sources or onto to fresh evidence. More than other kinds of history there is room to contribute original knowledge to the picture.

The place of documents
The evidence comes in many different forms. The range of relevant documents is wide, some produced by institutions such as central and local government, monasteries, bishoprics or colleges both inside the county and beyond, others by families and individuals, or businesses. This section also includes maps, visual images and people (through oral history) as well as documents created from the seventh century to the present day. Documentary research has been the bedrock of local history from its beginnings, and remains essential. However, modern local history also makes extensive use of physical evidence, found in landscape, buildings, artefacts and archaeology (see Original evidence: Archaeology, Landscape and Buildings). Local studies need to combine elements of both documentary and physical evidence in order to understand the local experience.

Documents: a chronology
This section of the guide uses a broadly chronological approach to documentary evidence, taking in turn: the earliest, Saxon sources; medieval; early modern (c.1520- c.1750); modern (c.1750- 1914); twentieth century and beyond.

Types of evidence
For each of these periods the main types of source, and the trends in records they represent, will be identified. Such trends play a large part in determining the range of questions local historians can ask and answer.

Collecting the evidence
For every period certain key questions apply in taking evidence from documents. Who caused the record to be made? Why? Who drew the document up and how? When was it done? An awareness of this context will be important to how you collect and interpret information, as examples in the following sections will show.
There may also be issues of unfamiliar language, dates, handwriting etc. for which there are solutions to hand. A good starting point is David Dymond’s Researching and writing history. A guide for local historians (Third edition, Carnegie Publishing in association with British Association for Local History, 2009).

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