While the impact of ranking history journals has recently occupied the minds of scholars there is a vast subterranean history industry out there that is largely invisible to academics. Scholars might pontificate on history journal rankings for their CVs, yet many widely read local history publications are not peer reviewed, do not make university lists and are not ranked. Further, the armies of very active local history enthusiasts are unlikely to read a scholarly history journal, visit a university library or attend events at a university history department. As I have written elsewhere there is a yawning gap between the scholar or professional historian and the keen amateur. Unfortunately little has changed.
Local histories often look away from the histories of the elite to the experiences of the ordinary, the mundane, the intimate and the banal. As such, they are a form of radical history–and are quite popular too. While some local histories might be antiquarian, parochial or obscure, generally the authors of local histories have lived locally and so intimately understand the local landscapes through their own life experiences. They are the gatekeepers and custodians of rich historical resources. This is history from the bottom (assuming that academic history is the top of the history tree). Yet, while the tree tops are few, many seeds fall to the ground, find fertile soil and grow. Sometimes the seedlings grow into history thickets, a bit prickly perhaps, but quite dense and full of value and meaning.
Local history takes in a broad range of historical inquiry that can cut across other disciplines and sources including oral traditions, social and cultural practices, ephemera, objects, sites and more. Local history is a powerful tool that contributes to place making and the construction of identity. These histories relate stories of community rituals, traditions and celebrations that are embedded in interpersonal and familial networks. These stories create a dense landscape of meanings that are layered and nuanced.
Using local histories, it is possible to engage with the historical consciousness of ordinary citizens and their stories. Historical conscientiousness, according to Anna Clark, is ‘uniquely and universally human’ and covers the broadest range of human experiences; ‘it describes humanity’s interest in the past’. For Clarke, historical consciousness ‘defines how we engage with, and make, history’. Clark concludes that her interviewees’ stories are framed by personal experience, and argues that good history is a balance between ‘empathy and perspective, between intimacy and distance’ — also the essence of good local history.
Local history and the stories of ordinary citizens can be engaging and lively. While many amateur historians are shy about their talents for storytelling, with encouragement, guidance and the provision of a platform, they are keen to be part of the story-making process. Keen amateurs are particularly interested in writing stories that bring their memories to life. These stories are intimate, authentic and rarely suffer from short-termism. Geoffrey Blainey maintains that ‘history is the reservoir of human experience’. This is the spirit of local history.
Many local history publications capture these stories embedded in lived experience and community. I edit one of these journals, Camden History. The latest edition features retired barber and local wag Col Smith, who did not finish high school. With editorial assistance he wrote a lively and engagingly memoir of cutting hair for local characters for over four decades. History student, and descendant of a local tenant farmers, Sophie Mulley reflected on the ‘ordinariness’ of her family history and its contribution to ‘national discourses’. Mulley maintains local history ‘empowers ordinary people, while providing future generations with a “realistic” history of an often idealised past’. For her it provided a ‘valuable’ and ‘deeper understanding’ of her identity while ‘providing a new perspective on Camden’s past’. There is also the story of internationally renowned local artist Brian Stratton, which provides a transnational perspective as he mounts a successful exhibition in China.
There are a host of other online periodicals that produce quality history by keen amateurs, as well as professional historians and the occasional academic scholar. Some have a long history while others are more recent.
In some quarters there is constructive engagement of scholars with local history. Graeme Davison’s Lost Relations is an example of how an academic historian engaged meaningfully with his own family history. Tanya Evans’ Fractured Families has brought together the histories of the powerful and the poor through the stories of the Benevolent Society. While the New South Wales Family History Conference’s ‘Cowpastures and Beyond‘ placed family history in its broader historical context, and brought scholars and amateurs together on the same platform.
Joseph Amato declared that ‘all history is local’. And so it is. In Rethinking Home Amato maintains that ‘people of every place and time deserve a history’ and only local history provides the platform for the most intimate of matters. He urges the writing of local history to explore ‘the senses, emotions, the clandestine and the irrational’ while examining literature and ‘ideologies as conscience creations of the countryside’. As I have done in some of my own work. Amato uses his residency and writing of southwestern Minnesota to illustrate the power of the local in the face of globalisation and its homogenising effect on the world.
While these efforts are positive there are different perspectives on this matter. For some, the gap between the keen amateur and the scholar appears small from the top of the tree, yet the view from the bottom is somewhat different. Many keen amateurs are cynical about the role and apparent indifference of scholars towards their efforts. There is a sniff of arrogance from many in the academy towards keen amateurs.
History from the bottom up is not new; it has long exposed the stories of the marginal and disenfranchised to the sunlight. But there are still many dark corners of historical endeavour. They often provide a useful methodology to re-examine official narratives. Evan’s Fractured Families provides a new perspective of the official story in Ron Rathbone’s A Very Present Help Caring for Australians Since 1813, of royal commissions and inquiries. Evans uses the family history research of keen amateurs to tell the stories of the forgotten and invisible.
Local histories engage in a range of scales from transnational, to national and regional. They have the ability to put the local in the context of the global. My work on the Red Cross illustrates the links between the local, the provincial and the metropole within the British Empire. For Richard Waterhouse there is a contradiction in that he feels local histories fail to embrace national story of Australia, yet points out that there is a need for more local histories to ‘fully comprehend the complexities and contradictions’ of the Australian story. The keen amateur often lacks the skills to look beyond the local in local history, and fails to join the dots between the different scales in their stories. I feel that this is a real shame because much valuable local history work is often ignored, overlooked, or just becomes invisible just because of its localism and narrow view of the world.
Scholars occasionally need to take a look downwards from the heights of the academy to see what is growing at the bottom of the history tree. Carolyn Holbrook challenges academic historians to engage with the wider public. Local history knowledge deserves wider exposure within the academy. Local history’s apparent lack of prestige is no excuse for downgrading or ignoring journals that attempt to publish quality work. This does no justice either to the academy or keen amateurs. While some universities invite keen amateurs into their world there needs to be greater recognition and engagement from both sides. The scholar and the keen amateur should come to some form of mutual recognition. It might even be taken into account in the journal ranking process.
Ian Willis is an enthusiastic author, blogger, editor of all things local, president of the Camden Historical Society and a member of a number of community history groups. He steps across the history divide and is an honorary fellow at the University of Wollongong, and a member of the Professional Historians Association (NSW & ACT), Independent Scholars Association of Australia and History Council of New South Wales.