& THOUGHTS ON LOCAL HISTORY
Top 5 Things Local Historians Are Getting Wrong
In Beaver County, Pennsylvania & Beyond
We’ve identified a short list of issues with doing local history, from trivia peddling, nostalgia pimping, permitting undocumented history, fixated obsessions with the past, and aversions to digital media. We also weigh in on local history museums’ provincialism, poverty mindset, and feigning interest in serious oral history work.
Unfortunately for many generations of students, their history teachers placed far too much importance on the wrote memorization of historical “milestones”–those disjointed facts and trivial tidbits of information about the past. Still today, history teachers and local historians do not spend enough time using such facts to develop and convey to students meaningful and coherent understandings of historical significance around basic historical information.
The historical record—what many interpret as little more than an expansive catalog of names, dates, and events–is far more than a collection of discrete information. Historical facts are always situated; they have context. They are interrelated and interwoven into a tapestry of social, political, and economic narratives. It is only through fuller explanations of history—beyond the factoid–can we meaningfully know and appreciate its complexities and currents of contradictions and continuities.
This should be the goal of public historians in classrooms and local history museums. At the center of their work must be the task of moving beyond historical facts. Trivia peddling is simple, easy, and lazy. On the other hand, connecting facts to their historical significance is much more difficult. It requires a command of analysis, evaluation, synthesis, and critical interpretation of historical information, as well as theoretical thought and thesis formation.
Moreover, when we move past trivia peddling we open ourselves up to the uncomfortable truth that not everything beholden or revered by local historians is of historical value. Not everything that’s old has worth. Sometimes, old stuff is just junk.
And the significance test for any and all history, of course, lies in the simple question: So what? It’s up to local historians to make this case.
In addition to trivia peddling, local historians oftentimes overindulge in nostalgia. But of course, one of our most personally gratifying connections to the past is nostalgia—that sentimental affection or longing fondness for something long ago. Nostalgia is a pleasant, mostly, evoking memories of warmth and happiness. But nostalgia can also make us feel wistful, sadly longing for things that we know are gone forever. Nostalgia’s unique charm is that it simultaneously induces rejoicing and mourning, happiness and sorrow:
- Those were the good old days, but now they’re gone.
- Life was so much simpler back then, but times have changed forever.
- Back then life was easy, now it’s just too complicated.
- Things were built to last back then, not like today.
- Sure, we had hard times back then, but that made us tough today. It gave us character. We either learned to survive or we didn’t.
Of course, these are the kind of hyperbolic sentiments encouraged by nostalgia’s rose-colored perspective on the past. And local historians should be cautious of peddling such personal subjectivities–at least not without a critical understanding of them. History is both sweet and sour, and local historians have an obligation to reveal its many good, bad, and ugly truths.
The past cannot speak for itself. This is why historical objects such as monographs, letters, photographs, and recordings must be documented with as much identifying information as possible. The process of documenting historical items is called cataloging and curation. It’s the complete annotation of information:
- Subject (description of activity, date of origin, subject location, names of participants).
- Creator or producers (author, artist, creator, photographer, intellectual property status).
- Physicality and medium (physical object, manuscript, postcard, daguerreotype, VHS tape).
- Provenance (origin and history of ownership)
- Collection or archival status (identification number, collection holding, located)
Local historians have a duty of care and responsibility to ensure that both physical and digital objects are cataloged and curated for organizational purposes, such as research, storage, and insurance purposes. Most of this activity is “behind the scenes.” However, when local historians create exhibits or present historical items online through digital platforms such as websites or social media, the presentation of documentation is no less important.
Perhaps the most egregious examples of undocumented history can be found on social media pages of local history enthusiast groups and museums. These posts are often little more than repostings from other sites, regurgitated previous posts, or photo dumps with little to no attribution or historical documentation (e.g., lacking dates, subjects, source, etc.) Many photos are clearly “lifted” or stolen from published books, publications, or online sites.
This is not how local history should be practiced at any level, especially by bona fide historical museums or heritage associations. Not only does this signal a lack of awareness, training, or basic protocol regarding appropriate documentation of published historical items, but the sloppy practice is damaging. It works against the meticulous preservation efforts of competent local historians who understand the value and need of documentation so that future generations do not inherit from us a load of useless garbage history.
Stuck in the Past
History is never really about the past, but far too many local historians and their organizations are existing off the fumes of yesteryear. Worse, too many rely exclusively on the diligent hard work of previous generations of local historians—taking from the well (i.e., the history archives), but never replenishing it for the sake of future generations. As the world moves forward, these historians and organizations stay fixed in the same rut of time and space–offering nothing new, nothing different, nothing innovative to the public.
Museum studies show that the public does not want to–nor do they–revisit the same dusty, musty, rusty local history museums permanently stuck in the past. That sounds peculiar; after all, history is a look-back at the people, places, dates, and events of long ago. But that’s not where local history needs to stay, especially considering the essential role of historians is help us understand the past’s continuities and contradictions shaping our present.
When local historians are immovably stuck in the past—or disinterested in the present and future—the result is very little effort put into considering history’s most profound question that, by definition, breaks down the illusionary walls between past/present/future: So what?
The question itself challenges the inane practice of trivia peddling and nostalgia pimping–as in, why and how is any of this information relevant, useful, helpful toward understanding the world in which we live today?
Aversion to Digital Media
Perhaps the greatest misunderstanding among local historians is that digital media is a threat to brick and mortar institutions, physical exhibits and artifacts, or in-person programming such as museum tours.
Generally speaking, digital media is just the latest technological incarnation of recorded content starting with written and printed texts photography, sound recordings, and then film, television, and video recordings.
However, digital media is more than just technology. It is a profoundly effective and creative way of communication–and doing local history. Through computers and the internet, we can bring together multiple mediums to capture, preserve, and share local history. We can use it to organize and create historical content, from reaching out to the public in immediate ways through email, newsletters, online fundraising, and zoom calls to creating online history programming that can, literally, reach around the world. More important, digital media coupled through the internet and social media is a powerful way local historians can make their museums and programs more accessible to those with mobility, sight, and hearing issues.
But none of these new frontiers in public history can be opened if local historians refuse to accept and/or engage digital media. Some of our local historians and their organizations are simply fearful of these changes sweeping over them. Some are simply technologically unprepared. And some are foolishly hanging on to a misguided hope that history won’t pass them by if they ignore digital media, when in fact this resistance to change is devaluing their own historical significance.
Distinctions without Differences
By definition, local history is centered on a defined geographic location, such as an historical site, a specific community, town, county, or region. Naturally, local history museums, heritage associations, and preservation societies tend to self-identify as such (e.g., Little Beaver Historical Society, Beaver Falls History Museum, Rochester Area Heritage Society, Beaver County Historical Research & Landmarks Foundation).
Like our many winding and overlapping rivers and railways, the major and minor currents of local history are woven throughout our county. Our collective past–from indigenous peoples, Western frontier settler-colonialism, to our agricultural and industrial heritage–is present and diffused throughout every named community in our county—all 54 of them.
Our shared history is our common history–our commonwealth. It’s unifying and binding, not only because we share it now but also because our ancestors in every corner of the county participated in its making. Only a wider lens on history can best reveal this. However, Beaver County’s nearly two-dozen independent local history organizations—with a few exceptions not self-bound to geography—tend to promote, maintain, and perpetuate historical distinctions without differences. Local historians and their organizations have to move beyond the parish-pump mindset.settler-colonialism
“Laugh and the world laughs with you,” wrote Ella Wheeler Wilcox in her poem, “Solitude.” “Weep, and you weep alone.” It’s a reminder that misery does not attract company because it is so darn off-putting. But it is human nature for humans to help those in need, such as the tired, sick, downtrodden, and the poor. But when a 501(c)3 charitable incorporation “begs” the public for money, people naturally want to know why. For what purposes are our donations necessary? Is the need legitimate or an opportunity of convenience?
Central to the psychology of fundraising is understanding the value proposition: What benefits arise from an exchange of money from giver to receiver? Is it something tangible such as a gift, newsletter subscription, special access to events, or formal recognition for one’s charitable contribution? Maybe we simply receive thanks and heartfelt gratification for supporting the work of local historians?
Fundamentally, value propositions have to make sense, although perhaps underwritten by emotion, reason, tradition, or economics. It helps when asking for money if local history museums can first demonstrate their worth, starting with accomplishments and ending with organizational professionalism. For most people, the following reasons are disqualifying of public support:
- Operational dysfunction and lack of oversight
- Lacking mission focus
- Ineffective, stale, or non-existing programming
- Failing outreach and communication
- Refusal to modernize
- Not adhering to public history’s professional best practices and norms
Unfortunately, a pervasive poverty mindset among too many local history organizations assumes that the public will or should simply support museums without serious consideration of value proposition. When the public cannot easily see or understand the work of local historians and their organizations, the fault rests not with the public, but the museums themselves. Furthermore, pervasive crisis messaging driven by a poverty mindset is tiresome and counterproductive. The public is inspired to climb aboard a moving train, not a broken-down heap that never leaves the station.
Unserious about Oral History
Doing oral history work is immediately valuable, as we create possibilities to capture, preserve, and share people’s personal, lived experiences with history. Veterans stories, eyewitness accounts of significant events, and the memories of our senior citizens are unique and exceptional windows into the past, but while such persons are still living to tell us their stories. However, time waits for no one and once a community member dies we’ve forever lost the chance to hear their stories in their own words and in their own unique voices.
There is no substitute for doing this kind of local history. Interviews and conversations must be arranged. Recording equipment must be employed. Video or audio media must be processed and edited. And the resultant historical interviews must be cataloged, curated, and safely stored. And finally, oral histories need to be shared with the public.
Oral history work (even a basic low-cost program) can and should be done by local history organizations in every Beaver County community, but it is not. In fact, there is no systematic, dedicated, program-based oral history work being done at all. At best, an occasional short-term interview project appears from time to time, but this is no substitute for the kind of serious oral history work that local historians praise as so important, but yet fail to do.