The Uses Of Local History

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The extent to which today’s historians depend on local studies becomes clear with a glance at the program of any of the professional meetings. For example, the papers read at the 1980 meeting of the Organization of American Historians included “Migration and Persistence in a Settled Rural Community: Chelsea, Vermont”; “The Creation of an Elite Ruling Tradition in the Eighteenth-Century Virginia Southside: Lunenburg County, Virginia”; “Agricultural Development and Economic Conditions in Pelham, Massachusetts, 1740–1800”; “Reconstructing the History of a Community”; “Black Families in Chatham, Ontario, 1850–1880”; “Ethnic Labor in San Jose”; “Integrationist and Accommodationist Protest in Topeka, Kansas”; and many more. These papers would never have been read at such a meeting a generation ago. They mirror the belief of today’s scholars that the people can best be studied from the ground up.

Those historians have discovered a basic truth. History does not lose its nobility when it focuses on the particular rather than the general. Charles Eliot Norton sensed the true significance of local studies when he said of his friend, Harvard historian John Fiske: “He began with the history of the Universe; went on to the history of the United States; and may yet advance to the history of Cambridge.” For good local history is not really local history at all; instead it views the universality of the human experience through the tiny lens of a single community.