Monday, November 15, 2010

Relevance of Local History

Once upon a time, local history was the purview of the non-professional or hobbyist historian. Those with strong roots in a community would start an historical society to encourage community participation. An active interest in a town's past was encouraged to preserve the local flavor. Today our struggle to understand our geographical communities and sense of place is less straightforward. Professionals who once focused on larger themes must re-examine goals to reflect smaller societies, seek new ways to engage non-professionals, and relate the value of tying local history to the study of societies and culture on a larger scale.

This morning as I prepared for my day, I heard an NPR piece entitled "Listeners Urged to Submit Cherished Mail."

"As part of a series on the U.S. Postal Service airing later this month, NPR is collecting images of the best thing that ever arrived in your mailbox. Did you receive something in the mail that you keep close to your heart — a love letter, a postcard from abroad, a note from a dear relative, a reply to fan mail, a care package, via USPS?" .

This way of thinking about mail is significant. It allows us to relate something very personal to something much larger than ourselves - mail and mail service. It allows us to think about our local mail delivery and relate it to the whole postal system. I have images of the pony express, my kind mailman Amos who was always full of smiles when I was growing up, my Uncle who would mail interesting gifts to me from remote and cold parts of the world such as Iceland and the Yukon... One piece of mail can provide insight into our own treasured memories, to other people connected to us by a unique service, to the service itself, and to the places the mail traveled. The large story of the mail is a series of local stories connected by a common thread.

Sometimes my day just points to a theme very poignantly. After catching up on my radio news, I sat down to catch up on my blog reading. Museum professional Linda Norris had posted "How Do You Put People into the Picture of Local History: 2 Smart Ideas." She addressed the problem of local museums quickly becoming dinosaurs. In a transient society, there are fewer "old timers" who care enough to set up historical societies and write published local histories. Or, those who do care are watching newer generations emerge with little interest because of a lack of local roots. Alternately, many in younger generations who still dwell in the town in which they grew up have an inability to see value in studying the past because no one ever effectively showed them the benefit of such research and reflection. Linda provides a couple of great examples of how more general themes can invite distanced audiences in.

There is one final item I came across recently that I'd like to share and relate to this subject. Last week, a guest post on the blog by a geography PhD student discussed "Archival Activism" and how archives can help social causes. In the piece, she discussed her own arrival in a new place. " I have been wondering how and when I will find the time to get to know this town, and the vibrant current of community movements and grassroots initiatives that course through it." She described her new locale as a "house of amnesia" where people have lost track of the social struggles that made the society what it is today. "I have come to acknowledge that as I arrive in an unfamiliar place to create a new home, I must also work hard to familiarize myself with an unknown history." It struck me that local cultural heritage institutions can fill the void this student has identified. While the writer understands the desirability of identifying a "sense of place," most people do not. One of the duties of cultural heritage professionals is to relay the importance of the local history and to bring outsiders into our community by demonstrating how they fit among our local culture.

To make cultural heritage institutions and local history relevant, we must reach outward to find those seeking answers about their place in the world. Internally we must mold our resources and programs to tell community stories with which potential users can identify. "Memory" institutions must think beyond the memories they've always kept. They must identify new prospective tales to collect and seek new ways to share these stories with modern audiences.

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