Local Sites and Community History

While many people tend to see local history and affinity-group community history simply as part of a larger effort in Public History, these two types of history have their own complexities and challenges.

First of all, presenting local history seems to challenge some of the basic tenets of historical scholarship: change over time and objectivity. While most historical work emphasizes how individuals or places changed over the course of a particular time period, Tammy Gordon believes that “the main purpose of community history exhibits is to emphasize community life from the residents’ perspectives not the changes over time in the broader social, political, or economic environment.”1 Local history is more about how individuals remember certain events than how those events fit into a greater historical context. Mastering this concept can be hard for historians, who have been trained to alway position stories of individuals within a the larger historical landscape.

Local history also challenges a historian’s quest for objectivity. Traditionally, historians have been trained to be objective — to try to look at history from an unbiased, outsiders perspective. But Local history, in many cases, embraces the opposite: subjectivity. This is because much of the local history has been created by the people who have lived the history, or are descents of people who have lived the history. Therefore, they are adamantly against the concept of objectivity. Instead they want to tell “their story” they way they think it should be told.

Another challenge in doing local and affinity-group community history is to find the right balance between providing scholarly, curated information and soliciting user contributions. On one hand, information supplied by historians and museum professionals have a sense of authority and reliability. One assumes (and most of the time, rightly so) that these authors are leaders in their field and their material is well researched and can be trusted. For example, the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia site (http://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org) has hundreds of articles written by historical professionals. It seems like a place that the general public and scholars alike can go to get information about almost any topic in Philadelphia’s history. With these types of sites, the user knows who is writing the materials and can see the author’s credentials. At the same time, these sites seem to be very informative but not very interactive. And they certainly do no attempt to build a community.

On the flip side, there are open access sites which ask users to generate the content. For example, http://www.outhistory.org allows users to share their own stories and even use information and site materials to build their own exhibits. By having users contribute, the site can convince them that their own opinions, experiences and expertise really do matter. This can help build a sense of community and encourage users to engage with the site and form a deeper connection that one might when just using a site to find information. In general, the challenge is find out how to provide material that users view as trustworthy, while still helping users engage with the site and feeling like they have made a lasting impact.

Thinking about local history and affinity-group community history has made me wonder what my project would be like if it was presented as a local history site. What would locals in Vincennes have to say about George Rogers Clark? Is he a local hero or an Indian murderer? My site tries to be very objective in presenting many different sides of the conflict. I’m sure many locals would disagree that I should even be presenting different perspectives or potentially putting Clark in a bad light. Instead, they might want me to present what makes Indians and the United States look good. On the other hand, American Indians presenting a local history version of my project might also object to me sharing many sides to the story, as they might want to focus exclusively on their side and only tell their story.

In addition, this week’s reading also caused me to consider what I could do to engage the public more with my site and build community. I have discovered that what I am building looks a lot more like the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia site and much less like OutHistory.org. I am not sure that having the public contribute oral histories would be helpful, as the Siege of Sackville occurred in the 1700s. Even so, I am thinking  that it might be interesting to include a page which encourages users to share their own comments about the perspectives they have seen or anything new that they discovered.  Since my site seeks to present the different voices of the people involved in the Siege of Sackville, it seems only appropriate to include the voices of people today, as they respond to this event.

  1. Gordon, Tammy. “Community Exhibition: History, Identity, and Dialogue.” In Private History in Public: Exhibition and the Settings of Everyday Life. Lanham: AltaMira Press, (2010): 35.

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