Published online by Cambridge University Press: 15 April 2021
Local history has two essential ingredients – people and place. Together they have interacted to produce changing, but particular, historical experiences, and it is these that are the stuff of local history. As David Dymond has put it, local historians are concerned with ‘people in their place’. The results are rich in many ways but may seem confusingly diverse. There are many pathways to interest and involvement in local history. This book aims to identify some major routes, providing an overview of English local history, its themes and findings, and an introduction to how it can be investigated.
English local history tells us much more than that every place was different from every other place. By rediscovering and interpreting local experiences, it is a fundamental part of wider histories. In one direction local history illuminates general history, while in the other it is influenced by outside factors. Paradoxically, despite its ‘small’ canvas, local history can offer one of the broadest perspectives available. Its time span and evidence range are exceptionally wide. It combines both material and documentary evidence, spanning the archaeological and landscape clues of prehistory and the earliest written records of the Saxon period to the present day. It generates a shared agenda of questions that are relevant to whatever place is being studied and to different time periods, and that foster a comparative approach. Separately these questions offer specific directions for historical investigation, and together they can contribute to a holistic understanding of historical experiences and processes.
Today local history is used (or consumed?) through schools, the popular media, visits and tourism, private collecting, museums and galleries, family history, community heritage and public history projects, and the activities of voluntary societies. Local history activists investigate, record, analyse and share evidence and findings, working through libraries, record offices, specialist societies, lifelong and higher education courses and degrees, and group research projects linking volunteers, heritage and academic professionals. In this last case, anniversaries, like that of the First World War, have recently been a major catalyst of local history activities and funding.
An obvious starting point is curiosity about a particular place. The ‘local’ in local history may be readily identified by geographical area, by a spatial demarcation line.