I work with local history collections on a daily basis and I am constantly surprised by the gems held by small museums and libraries. Over the past eight months some of the more interesting bits of history I have come across include: wartime ration cards, an agricultural society minute book from 1905, land allotment maps, and numerous interesting photographs.
In addition to these visually appealing items I have had the opportunity to be exposed to dozens of local history texts. Many of these local histories were written in celebration of a centennial, or other significant anniversary and are often written by a local community group or a group of volunteers. The quality of writing and research varies greatly from book to book, and very few provide footnotes or bibliographies. Is this a bad thing? From a research perspective it is a shame that more local histories do not include at least a basic bibliography, be it a list of local persons consulted or a more traditional bibliography. The inclusion of sources has the potential to aid later scholarship and is valuable to know in itself.
The academic historian in me does occasionally get the urge to scoff at histories written by enthusiastic community members. However, despite some research shortcomings local history texts are an important resource and are essential for preserving local heritage. Many are well written, compiled by people who are very passionate about their organization or community, and provide a unique look into a community from an 'insiders' persepctive.
Much local history is passed down orally. The nature of oral history leaves local history open to the pitfalls of human memory. Writing local history down helps counteract this pitfall. Additionally, many local history collections are filled with unidentifiable photographs, written history has the potential to provide context to images and assist in creating a fuller history.
Why should anyone care about the history of a small rural community? Small communities often have rich and vibrant pasts. Looking at the history of a small community can often illuminate the way in which society, industry, and social interests have evolved over time. Local history can act as a microcosm for examining larger issues such as the impact of industrialization or the link between community growth and the introduction of railroads.
Working with local history collections on a daily basis has reminded me of the importance of 'amateur' history in preserving the history of small communities. It has also made me very appreciative of local residents who help heritage institutions identify photographs and share their stories about the community. Community engagement is essential for local history and it makes me happy to see how many people are genuinely interested in local history initiatives.