Published online by Cambridge University Press: 15 April 2021
Where to begin
THE BEST PLACE to start is the printed and online accounts already available for your place of interest and potential study. The basis provided by these secondary sources will save you considerable effort; it will establish what information is known, what sources have so far been recorded, and how they have been interpreted. Duplication can be avoided and gaps in knowledge ripe for investigation or, alternatively, hotbeds of local historical controversy pin-pointed. Thus the published history is both a quarry and a jumping-off point for further research. However, do not take all you read as gospel, or be afraid of sometimes challenging what you find in print. One of the bugbears of local history has been the unquestioning repetition of ‘facts’ with little clear foundation, just because they have once been published. If you know that the soils in a particular part of your parish are unsuitable for growing wheat, despite what a local booklet suggests, or if you are suspicious of the triumphantly Anglican tone of a nineteenth-century history of your town when it comes to assessing the strengths of nonconformity, be ready to investigate further and to add your own findings to the current picture. You will find that existing, published local histories fall into a number of types, each with its own form and emphases, and reflecting the phases of English local history's development as a subject. A guide to these is given below. These types, their availability and character will soon become familiar, and this awareness will help you to assess critically the histories and information you find and to develop your own interest.
Another major reason for starting with published materials is their relative accessibility. Unlike original documents, they do not need to be transcribed from sometimes difficult original handwriting, or translated from Latin or other languages. Printed histories are kept in repositories usually nearer to the average researcher's home and open for longer hours than is the case for other sources. You will find that three basic distinctions are made in the location of local history sources – between printed materials, original documents, and records and examples of archaeological evidence, buildings and artefacts. Each of these are traditionally found in a different place – respectively local studies libraries, record offices and ‘the field’ and/or museums.