Getting started in local history

The past has been described as 'a different country'. A place in many ways familiar but where the unprepared traveller can soon get lost. How well you prepare, and where you start your journey, will greatly influence your chances of travelling successfully. Here, in the shape of short extracts from Simon Fowler's first article in the 'Getting started' series (see right) is some very basic advice for beginners.

Look on the web

Visit your local studies library

Visit your local museum

Visit your local archives

Join a local history society

Join an adult education course

Go for a walk!

In addition, the following sections contain useful information:

Local history catalogues

Some useful books relating to local history

Look on the web

As you're reading this page, then you're already on the web looking for information about local history. What you will find can be pretty random, but it's always a good idea to enter a number of terms in your favourite search engine and see what comes up. Entering the name of the place you're interested in and 'local history', local history society', 'local studies library' will usually throw up some useful sites which may lead you further.

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Visit your local studies library

“When you first become interested in a subject it is natural to find out what has already been written. Some subjects, especially railway and transport, are well served by secondary material (that is books and other published items). Many people are happy with a book, however out of date or badly written it may be.

“The easiest thing to do is to talk to the local studies librarian at your local library. Most central, or large, libraries have a local studies section which, as the name suggests, is where books and other material on the locality is collected together. Local studies librarians can be very helpful, sometimes almost too helpful. They should be able to tell you if any books or articles have been written on your subject. If they do not have the book you want they should be able to order it on inter-library loan, which might cost a few pounds but can save many wasted hours of research.

“Local studies libraries are the poor relations of the archive world, mainly because they are neither an archive nor a library but contain elements of both. They are likely to have a comprehensive collection of books about the locality, including street directories. From an archival point of view their greatest asset is often a comprehensively indexed collection of press cuttings from local, and sometimes national, newspapers going back to before the First World War. They may well also have some original documents, such as poor law records or personal papers, but they are usually not the first place to see original material. Many will also have an extensive collection of local photographs and maps, especially Ordnance Survey maps. In addition, they may have oral history tapes and transcriptions, which include references to places and topics of interest to you.

“It can be difficult to locate local studies libraries. They are normally part of the central reference library. Many are listed in Foster and Shepherd’s British archives: a guide to archive resources in the United Kingdom. Those with access to the Internet can find some addresses through the Familia website.”

('Getting started in local history: Where to begin', Simon Fowler, Local History Magazine No.70.)

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Visit your local museum

“Another source of original material and information which we tend to forget is the local museum. As well as displays of artefacts and other historic items, most museum collections will include some documentary and photographic material as well. All this information should be catalogued and local museum staff are usually more than happy to tell you about the material they hold and to provide access, with prior arrangement.”

('Getting started in local history: Where to begin', Simon Fowler, Local History Magazine No.70.)

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Visit your local archives

“Every county has a county record office (now usually called Archives): some larger cities, such as Southampton and Coventry, also have a city record office as well. These record offices hold material created both by local government, such as rate books, quarter session records or council minutes, and unofficial material donated by individuals, companies or clubs, which include such things as land and house deeds, account books, and photographs. Each record office’s holdings are very different, so records for friendly societies in one place may be entirely absent in a neighbouring archive.

“It is important to ring before hand to book a seat — as most archive offices have very cramped reading areas. They should also be able to give you a rough idea whether they have the records you are interested in.

“Each record office has a different system of managing its records, although they all follow the same principles of archive administration. Documents are kept together by collection, rather than rearranged by subject as happens in a library. A collection of solicitor’s records, for example, may well contain material on a variety of subjects, from land deeds to company records and individual’s diaries. In a library the collection would be broken up and the land deeds added to other land deeds in the libraries possession. This does not happen in an archive.

“All this could be very confusing, but fortunately help is at hand. A number of archives offices produce leaflets on aspects of the records which can be very useful. In most archives offices there are card indexes arranged by subjects which describe individual items, thus all references to charities are kept together. Sometimes the card indexes refer you to document lists, listing what is to be found in each collection. These lists can give you more detail about individual items.

“Confused? You will be, but if you get lost ask the staff. There will be an archivist on duty who should be able to point you in the right direction.”

('Getting started in local history: Where to begin', Simon Fowler, Local History Magazine No.70.)

The ARCHON Directory includes contact details for record repositories in the United Kingdom and also for institutions elsewhere in the world which have substantial collections of manuscripts noted under the indexes to the National Register of Archives.

Two national archives deserve a special mention:
the National Archives at Kew and
the National Monuments Record Centre in Swindon.

Both these important archives hold lots of information of interest and assistance to local historians.

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Join a local history society

Membership rarely costs more than a few pounds a year and most societies will hold between 6 and 12 meetings a year. In addition, many societies also publish their own newsletters, journals and books about local history. Your local library should be able to tell you about any local history societies in your area. Most counties have at least one county-wide local history association, which often acts as an umbrella group for all the societies in the county (for a full list see the Local History Directory on this site).

Many local history societies have their own research projects or maintain a list of members' interests, since many local historians have their own, unpublished, archives of information and photographs. By asking around, you may be able to identify other people in your area with similar interests to your own.

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Join an Adult Education course

Some colleges and universities organise local history courses about a wide variety of topics. For a full list of course organisers visit our guide to courses. The great thing about going on a local history course is that you will be in the company of other people with similar interests and have access to professional advice and support from course tutors.

In most counties, the county local history associations organise dayschools and conferences about local history. Some county archives, libraries and museums also organise courses on a regular basis (eg Bristol, Chester, Derbyshire).

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Go for a walk!

Simply walk around the area you are interested in, be it a village, inner-city neighbourhood, suburb or town centre. You will immediately begin to notice lots of things which will prompt lots of questions. Often the past is barely visible beneath new roofs or shopfronts. What has happened to the old schools and churches in your area — sometimes they become community centres and homes, sometimes they become showrooms and small factories. In many areas, the local parish church will be the oldest surviving building. What is the history of your local park. Was it created by the local council or was it donated by a local benefactor many years ago? These are the questions which will dictate the direction of your research.

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Local history catalogues

If you want to buy a selection of books to help you learn more about local history, then the following people all publish specialist local history catalogues or sell online:

British Association for Local History, PO Box 6549, Somersal Herbert, Ashbourne DE6 5WH.

Historical Association, 59A Kennington Park Road, London SE11 4JH.

Phillimore and Co, Madam Green Farm, Chichester, West Sussex PO20 2DD.

The National Archives, Ruskin Avenue, Kew, Surrey TW9 4DU.

The King's England Press, 21 Commercial Road, Goldthorpe, Rotherham, South Yorkshire S63 9BL.

Brewin Books, Doric House, 56 Alcester Road, Studley, Warks B80 7LG.

Federation of Family History Societies GENfair, West Wing, Manor Farm, Chilmark, Salisbury SP3 5AF.

Countryside Books, 3 Catherine Road, Newbury, Berks.

Francis Frith Collection, Frith's Barn, Teffont, Salisbury, Wilts SP3 5QP.

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Useful books

In and Around Record Repositories in Great Britain and Ireland by Jean Cole and Rosemary Church, 1992, Family Tree Magazine, ISBN 0 9511465 7 2.

British Archives: A Guide to Archive Resources in the United Kingdom (3rd ed) by Janet Foster and Julia Sheppard, 1995, MacMillan Press, ISBN 0 333 532 554.

Studying Family and Community History: Sources and Methods: A Handbook by The Open University, 1994. Published by the Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0 521 46004 2.

British Directories: A Bibliography and Guide to Directories Published in England and Wales (1850-1950) and Scotland (1773-1950) by Gareth Shaw and Alison Tipper, 1989, Leicester University Press, ISBN 0 7185 1292 8.

History on Your Doorstep by J R Ravensdale, 1982, BBC, ISBN 0 563 16464 6.

Village Records by John West, 1997, Phillimore, ISBN 1 86077 040 1.

Rural Life: Guide to Local Records by Peter Edwards, 1993, Batsford, ISBN 0 7134 6788 6.

Sources for English Local History by W B Stephens, 1994, Phillimore, ISBN 0 85033 911 1.

English County Histories: A Guide by C R J Currie and C P Lewis, 1994, Sutton, ISBN 0 7509 0289 2.

The Pursuit of Local History: Readings on Theory and Practice by Carol Kammen, 1996, Altamira Press, ISBN 0 7619 9169 7.

Latin for Local and Family Historians by Denis Stuart, 1995, Phillimore, ISBN 0 85033 984 7.

Church Court Records: An introduction for family and local historians by Anne Tarver, 1994, Phillimore, ISBN 0 85033 927 8.

Monuments of War: How to read a war memorial by Colin McIntyre, 1990, Robert Hale, ISBN 0 7090 4027 X.

The Batsford Companion to Local History by Stephen Friar, 1991, Batsford, ISBN 0 7134 6181 0.

The Oxford Companion to Local and Family History by David Hey, 1996, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0 19 211688 6.

Sounding Boards: Oral Testimony and the Local Historian by David Marcombe, 1995, University of Nottingham, ISBN 1 85041 075 5.

Photographs and Local History by George Oliver, 1989, Batsford, ISBN 0 7134 5678 7.

Never Been Here Before: a genealogists' guide to the Family Records Centre by Jane Cox and Stella Colwell, 1997, Public Record Office, ISBN 1 873162 41 3.

Local Heroines: A Women's History Gazetteer to England, Scotland and Wales by Jane Legget, 1988, Pandora, ISBN 0 86358 193 5.

Making the miles: A History of English Milestones by Carol Haines, 2000, Carol Haines, ISBN 0 9538885 0 9.

How to write & publish local & family history successfully by Bob Trubshaw, 1999, Heart of Albion Press.

Local History: A Handbook for Beginners by Philip Riden, 2000 edition, Merton Priory Press.

The Local Historian's Glossary of Words and Terms by Joy Bristow, 2001, Countryside Books.

A Handbook of Dates for students of British History, edited by C R Cheney, revised by Michael Jones, 2000 edition, Cambridge University Press.

Tracing the History of Houses by Bill Breckon et al, 2001, Countryside Books.

A Dictionary of Old Trades, Titles and Occupations by Colin Waters, 2002 reprint, Countryside Books.

The NEW Reading the Landscape: Fieldwork in Landscape History by Richard Muir, 2000, University of Exeter Press.

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