Local History: Top Tips

By Dr Alan Crosby
Anyone can learn how to do local history. Find out more about the skills you need and the help you can find to get started. Top tips for aspiring local historians to help you go on to do a project of your own.
Hull Bridge, East Yorkshire, 1937 

Get started

First choose your subject. Think about what interests you particularly. What intrigues you about your area? It might be, for example:

When you have thought about what really interests you, and found something that you feel 'comfortable' with, you can begin work. Don't be too ambitious to begin with - start out with modest ambitions. You may find that what you think will be a short project just grows and grows.

There are not many people who set out with the aim of writing a full-sized book, or discovering the history of an entire community, and you don't have to start out in that way either.

Background research

Image of a notebook and laptop
Undertaking research
Find out what has already been written and published locally, about your area or your topic. See what other people have done already and examine their work with a critical eye - does it ring true, are the sources of information given?

Read as much as you can about the background to your subject, so that you get a real feel for its setting and its context. How does your local example fit into the wider scheme of things?

'Make full use of the local studies library in your area and get to know its resources ...'

So, if you are looking at sewers and drains in the 19th century you'll need to read books about Victorian sanitation and public health, about towns and their health problems in the period, and maybe even about civil engineering. You then have a framework within which your local study will fit - was your town unusual, or did it follow the national trend?

Buy and read an introductory guide to local history. Browse through local history journals in the library. Make full use of the local studies library in your area and get to know its resources: this is where most background material and reference material will be found and you should spend happy hours here, extending your knowledge and finding your way around the local history of your area.

See if there are any local history websites for your area or topic: this is a much more hit-and-miss business, but many local history and county history societies now have their own sites.

When you are reading, make notes and keep track of the sources which other people have used. Be methodical, right from the beginning, in keeping a record of the exact location of information (a full reference to the page in a book where you found the quotation or the fact, a list of which books and articles you have read).

Meet other people

Image of the Thriplow Landscape Research Group
The Thriplow Landscape Research Group
In any research it is good to exchange ideas and information with other people, and to keep track of what's going on in the world of local history. Join your local history society (the library should have details of any societies in your area) and go to its meetings.

See what other people are doing, hear the lectures in which other local historians present the results of their investigations, and buy the publications of the society (they always need the funds!). Consider joining the British Association for Local History (see Go further for details) or your county local history federation or society.

'You don't have to be a professional historian to use a record office ...'

Consider enrolling for a local history course, which will give you a more formal and more systematic grounding in the whys and wherefores. Investigate what courses are available in your area through university continuing education or lifelong learning departments; the Workers Educational Association [WEA]; local authority evening classes; and adult colleges. (For further details see Go further.)

Getting under way

When you have found out about the background and have a good idea of what it is you want to investigate, start looking for the primary sources and begin finding new information for yourself. Use the county record office or local archives. The record office is the place where the raw material of your quest, the manuscripts and documents, will be found.

Most record offices also have excellent collections of Ordnance Survey and other maps. The archives in the record offices are there for you to use: even if you have never looked at a historic document before, you can see for yourself what they are like. You don't have to be a professional historian to use a record office - in fact, most users of most record offices are amateurs.

Every record office is different, but don't be daunted by what at first visit will seem a terrifyingly unfamiliar place. Ask the staff for help, explain what you want, take some time to familiarise yourself with any guides, hand lists and other introductions to the collections, and don't worry if you don't understand at first - nobody ever did on their first visit to a record office! You will be in good company.

Ten top tips

  1. It's often useful to start at the most recent time and work backwards
  2. Be patient - don't rush things
  3. Be methodical and systematic; keep your notes in good order
  4. Always keep a record of where you found information
  5. Don't make guesses - look for real evidence
  6. Keep your subject under control - don't go off at tangents
  7. If in doubt, ask others for advice, help, or a second opinion
  8. Keep an open mind - the answer or the story may be unexpected
  9. Develop your research skills as you go: practice is half the battle
  10. Imagine that you are a detective looking for clues to piece together

Published on BBC History: 2005-03-03
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