Despite the discipline being frowned upon by our business-driven culture, the subject of history has exploded over the past decade or so. With the advent of blogs, popular TV programs on the History Channel and National Geographic, the explosion of the popular history market and the immediacy of world events on our everyday lives, the public seems to be looking to history for answers. Unfortunately, the demand for trained historians and the money to fund their work is not keeping pace with the demand.
While much of the attention is focused on major world events such as the World Wars, the Cold War and various global revolutions, local historians are the true unsung veterans of true historical research. Limited by rapidly developing suburban and urban environments, steadily disappearing funds, an utter lack of local enthusiasm and limited primary resources, the local historian is truly the grunt toiling away in the trenches of historical research. It is often up to them to piece together the story of a small town in a geographic area of little importance to the greater public yet could potentially be a major piece of a researcher’s puzzle.
The average local historian is often a “weekend warrior” who is either retired or works unpaid and part-time for a local historical society. Their hours of operation may be erratic, websites not particularly well maintained and the archives they possess are often not exactly as extensive as they would like. It can be very tempting for a researcher to quickly discount them. For those of us who have walked through the massive archives of museums or the historical societies of such revered places as Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a single dusty room in a municipal complex will be underwhelming.
It is also quite easy to discount the local historian in person. A retiree or librarian without a P.H.d in history or published work runs against the hard and fast research rules of researching history. It can also be very frustrating when the local historian’s area of expertise is outside of the area of research you are conducting. Those from an earlier generation may not have access to or rarely check email or utilize cell phones and can be incredibly difficult to get a hold of. Researching local history can be quite an ordeal.
However, we can’t discount the local historian. In fact, with a little work and patience, local historians can shed a tremendous amount of light upon the subjects we are researching. Our small towns and local areas, while overlooked in the grand scheme of popular history, are often connected to these events in ways we never imagined. Local historians are the link that holds these pieces together.
My short time spent at a local historical society was an eye opener. My contact not only could provide tremendous amounts of information on the history of the town I am studying, he also introduced me to his network. This is the primary strength of local historians: If they lack the information you need, they often know someone who does. From there it is up to the researcher to follow the breadcrumbs.
Besides information on the time period of my studies, my contact also enlightened me with some general history of Morris County. I was surprised to learn that Mooney Mountain in Roxbury was used as a lookout during World War Two for German bombers. Later, it became a base for a Nike Missile site during the Cold War as part of the extensive air defense network keeping watch over the East Coast. Bell Labs also maintained a still-closed bunker on the mountain that was designed to be used by the company in the event of a nuclear blast in the area. Such information did not pertain to my studies but certainly sparked my interest in further projects. The military history of Morris County, New Jersey is often left to George Washington’s encampment at Jockey Hollow in Morristown. To know that our military history extends much further than the Revolution was quite a gem.
In closing, dealing with local historians can be frustrating yet ultimately rewarding. Despite the shortfalls in research they can pose, ultimately the positive outweighs the negative. I for one, will be sure to utilize networks of local historians in the future.