You are here: Local History: Why and How?
Local history brings together:
· big questions
· original evidence for a particular place or area, perhaps unique, perhaps typical
· skills and concepts for reading and interpreting the evidence in relation to the questions
Local studies are vital for national and general historians pursuing research themes, and for a wide range of local historians motivated to understand past experience in familiar places, streets, neighbourhoods, families or households. At a basic level there is a shared agenda of questions: who lived here? How many of them? How, when and why were settlements made? Did settlements grow, decline or shift over time? Did people or groups within them move or stay? How did human activity mould the landscape? How far did the physical setting determine people’s lives and opportunities? What work did men, women and children do, and on what terms? How were they governed or governed themselves? How were they educated? Did they take part in religious worship? How much of their experience was determined by outside influences and how much by local and personal factors? What were their social identities, attitudes and relationships? Did ‘communities’ exist?
This common agenda is a starting point for reconstructing the history of a place, both public and private, and of seeing how and why people acted as they did in the overlapping spheres of their lives.
At its weakest local history has produced superficial results. General historians can parachute broad theories into their study area, imposing a pattern of conclusions without real engagement and understanding of local evidence and what it has to tell of the dynamics of real history. At another extreme, local historians can take so narrow a view that they miss the insights yielded by more varied sources and setting their study in the context of wider influences and comparisons with other places. Some are superficial in relying on repeated, accumulated claims, long- distanced from any direct supporting evidence, and on uncritically collecting large volumes of ‘facts’ without checking or linking them. Both extremes make for bad local history.
They miss the enjoyment of deeper engagement and the potential of local history for genuinely original contributions to historical knowledge. These are the great strengths of local history. They are realised when the three ingredients with which this section started are brought together, linked to aspects of a shared agenda, and studied in a comparative context provided by the work of earlier local historians. Very often that involves an interdisciplinary approach, which gives local history a special breadth as well as depth, in a time of more and more specialisation in some academic studies. For a typical research sequence see here. For general introductions to local historical studies see K.Tiller, English Local History: an introduction (2nd edition 2002, reprinted 2006); D.Hey, The Oxford Companion to Local and Family History (2nd edition 2008).
This online guide has been designed to help users realise the potential of local studies in Oxfordshire. It offers context and themes in the Oxfordshire History: a framework section; introduces existing published work in the Published Histories category; available original documentary evidence in the Original Evidence: Documents section; original evidence from archaeology, landscape and buildings in the Original Evidence: Archaeology, Landscape and Buildings category; and lists organisations and activities providing opportunities to get involved in Oxfordshire history in the Calendar of Events in Oxfordshire. New developments appear in the Noticeboard. Links are provided throughout to the most relevant other websites, to references for printed and online resources, or to illustrations and downloadable pdf files.
No online guide is static and the Oxfordshire Architectural and Historical Society (OAHS), which commissioned this guide, hope that users will contribute new information for the directory of organisations, the calendar of events, or for the noticeboard on projects, publications or other developments. Ideas for development of the content of the guide are also welcome by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Image – Finstock Independent Friendly Society, c.1910, © Finstock Local History Society)