The joys of local histories

Shauna Hicks is writing a 52 week series on genealogical records to “stimulate her genealogy blogging efforts”. She’s invited us to join her on the journey and while I’m behind, how could I miss out on the Week 7 topic: local histories…. after all they take up a fair bit of my bookshelf space.

Why local histories?

local histories 2Local histories tend to come in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes those tiny volumes can include significant information. Only rarely will they specifically mention one’s own family, but that doesn’t matter. Our families aren’t islands and they share their community with their friends, associates and neighbours (FANs) as well as, possibly, other family members. Anything which expands our knowledge of the family’s community adds texture and richness to what we know of family stories and – it may even break down brick walls.

I’d categorise types of local histories these ways:

1. “Anecdotal” local histories which draw on the memories of those who live(d) there.

These are often chatty, informative stories but can be very subjective, which is not to say they are incorrect. Rather that the reader needs to weigh up what they’re being told. I feel sure that if you’ve ever had a conversation with a spouse or sibling, you’ll recall instances where you each remember an event completely differently. For me, the weakness of this type of history is that often only a select group of people are interviewed, or choose to be interviewed, which lends a bias to the overall history. I wrote about this, in part, in an earlier blog post. Better than no history, of course, but leaving one craving more, or just wondering. Nor does this type of local history tend to include broader historical context so we can judge if the community’s experience is typical or uncommon.

2.      “Academic” local historieslocal histories 1

These may be somewhat esoteric and seem too dense to bother with at times. However because they have to be reviewed by academic peers, they generally have more depth. What they lack is often a sense of the individuals who lived in the community, though they are certainly a bridge between the individual’s experience of history and national or international perspectives. They may exist as published histories but it’s also worth searching local universities to see if a Masters or PhD student has written a thesis on your area of interest.

3.      “Rounded” local histories

I struggled to find a term which satisfied me for this category. These may include a blend of broader history together with the story of the specific community and its circumstances, as well as some of the families who lived there.

Crows Nest Folk Museum & Village.

Crows Nest Folk Museum & Village, Queensland.

4.      “Pictorial” local histories

Although they offer less depth than any of the above, pictorial histories can bring the stories to light more clearly by showing you photographs or paintings of communities or regions either currently, or contemporaneous with when your family lived there.

5.      Built local history

I’m sure this wasn’t what Shauna had in mind but why not consider the local history that a local historical museum can offer you? It may be they also have a small publication on the area which you won’t find elsewhere, but they’ll have artefacts and perhaps buildings which show you how your ancestors lived. I wrote about these, as well as local histories, in my 52 weeks Beyond the Internet series in 2012.

Beyond the Internet

6.      Local history theory

What does it mean to study local history? How do we know the best ways to study local history? I have quite a few of these types of books too, thanks to my study for an Advanced Diploma in Local History.

So what’s my favourite local history?

You can see from all the tags how much info I've got from these two books.

You can see from all the tags how much info I’ve got from these two books.

Hands down I’d have to say the book Dorfprozelten Teil II written by Georg Veh in collaboration with members of the community. I’m forever dipping into it for my own family and that of the other Dorfprozelten emigrants.

A phenomenal amount of work has gone into it, listing as it does the residents of this Bavarian village from 1844 when the first land register was prepared. Not only that, it includes a plethora of BDM details for many of the families, as well as photographs of the community which make it easier to understand the village irrespective of whether the reader understands German.

This is of course perfect for research into the families and individuals who not only lived in the community but who emigrated. In fact a section of the book called be sub-titled “Inns and Emigrants”. In this I was very fortunate personally as my ancestral Happ family had owned an inn in the village for at least 150 years. This book gave me wonderful information, and photographs, which I was given permission to include in my Kunkel family history.

In terms of the emigrants, there’s no indication in the book of where the information was sourced. I am culpable in regard to the Australian-bound emigrants. What I provided to Georg at the time has been added to, and in some cases amended, as my knowledge has grown of their experiences –sometimes after repeatedly hassling poor Georg to clarify particular family details.

Frustratingly, albeit understandably, there is no index but I have prepared a partial one for my own use.

Summary

So there you have it. Hopefully some of this will offer food for thought, and an inclination to give local history a whirl to add flavour to your family history. I truly believe it’s impossible to do a well-rounded family history without looking at your family’s community.

As well as finding books on e-bay (use Google alerts) or select bookstores, I’ve just found this site, ISBNS.net which might prove helpful to you and which I can see becoming a firm favourite of mine.

And don’t forget if you live near an Australian reference library you will be able to submit an inter-library loan for any books held by the National Library of Australia.

A sample of the local history books on my shelves, or that I can recommend:

A centenary of memories: The Dungog Chronicle 1888-1988. Muddle, J and Hucherko K. The Dungog Chronicle

Argyll 1730-1850: Commerce, Community And Culture. McGeachy, R A A. John Donald Publishers, 2005.

Billabidgee: history of Urana Shire, Central Riverina, New South Wales. Bayley, WA. Urana Shire Council, 1959.

Conrad Martens in Queensland : the frontier travels of a colonial artist.  Steele, JG. University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1978.

Dorfprozelten am Main Teil II. Veh, G, Benedict Press, 2002 (this is my “bible” for historical research on Dorfprozelten around the time the emigrants came to Australia).

Dorfprozelten am Main: Ein Dorf im Wandel seiner 1000Jährigen Geschichte. Veh, G, Benedict Press 1995.

Footsteps through Time: a history of Chinchilla Shire (two hefty volumes). Mathews, T. Chinchilla Shire Council, 2004.

From Tall Timbers: a folk history of Crow’s Nest Shire. Crow’s Nest &​ District Tourist &​ Progress Association Inc., 1988.

Herston, Recollections and Reminiscences. Hacker, DJ; Hallam DR; Spinaze, M. Queensland Women’s Historical Association. 1995.

History of South Lochaweside. McGrigor, M. Oban Times Ltd, Oban, 1996.

Laufach. Jutta Fries, 2002.

Lismore, The Great Garden. Hay, R. Birlinn Limited, Edinburgh, 2009. (Lismore, Scotland)

Lost Argyll, Argyll’s lost heritage. Pallister, M. Birlinn Limited, Edinburgh, 2005.

Villages of Northern Argyll. Withall, M. John Donald Publishers, 2004.

Vision Splendid: a history of the Winton Shire. Forrest, P and S. Winton Shire Council and Winton and District Historical Society, 2005.

That’s not all folks but it’s surely enough for one day!

Beyond the Internet: Week 51 Oral History

Beyond the Internet

Beyond the Internet

This week we’re up to Week 51 in my Beyond the Internet series in which I explore the sources of information beyond our computer screens. This week’s topic is Oral History.

Oral History can be an invaluable asset in our suite of offline research resources. Again and again we read others say that they wish they’d listened to their parents/grandparents/great-grandparents. I too wonder how I could know so little about my grandparents when they lived next door for up to 21 years of my life. However I think we also need to “forgive” ourselves: it’s far more common than not, for us to be self-preoccupied in our teenaged years, caught up with study, work and later our own families.

ORAL FAMILY HISTORY

oral historyIt’s only as time goes along that we start reflecting on missed opportunities, almost always too late. It also assumes that each and all of our immediate ancestors would have willingly bared their souls to us, yet we also know we reserve secrets and private moments in our own hearts. So respect and acceptance are required on this journey into oral history. It was only as I started to write my Kunkel family history that I was able to tease some information from my father before his death, contrary to his decades as a human information-clam.

If we’re lucky some of our parents may be alive and we can start to ask them questions with interest and respect. Even if our parents are not alive there are other opportunities to capture some of their stories: what about close family friends who sometimes know more than we assume, or perhaps there’s an aunt or great aunt to tell the stories?

As you interview your family’s friends and relatives, there are many guidelines to follow so that you tease out answers without prejudicing what you’re told. You also need to weigh up past slights, family feuds etc to get a feel for whether you’re being told the “truth” which of course varies with almost every individual.

If you’re planning to do a series of oral history interviews you might be able to find out if your local library, archive or family history centre offers seminars of how best to go about them.

family memoriesIn Australia, a good starting point is the Oral History Association of Australia (OHAA). They also have useful publications for sale.  Your local archive may even have recording equipment that you can borrow: the OHAA would probably be able to advise you. I know that our reference library here in Darwin offered a training session a couple of years ago which was excellent, and there is now a wonderful resource on the NT Library webpage of Territory Stories.

A book I’ve found really helpful is Family Memories, A Guide to Reminiscing by Bob Price, available through the State Library of NSW Shop. It provides a helpful framework in which to consider the questions you want to ask your family. Quick readers can pick up a copy on eBay at present for a very good price (assuming it’s still available when this post goes up). Or you can get it on inter-library loan through the National Library of Australia.

 ORAL LOCAL HISTORY

local historySo far it’s been implicit that we’ve been focusing on our family’s specific history, but if that’s not possible, there is a way around this apparent “brick wall”. Don’t forget there are other families who’ve lived in the area for many years and experienced many of the same crop failures, weather problems, wars, socials and weddings. You may find that you can learn a great deal about your family’s life indirectly in this way to add richness and texture to your story.

One of the most valuable contacts I made was with the man who was the Murphy’s Creek (Qld) local history experts. Not only did he share a great deal of information with me but also provided me with copies of a recording of my grandfather’s younger cousin, Ann. I had met her a couple of years before her death and we had several discussions about the Kunkel family and as documentary facts proved her stories, it was apparent she was a “reliable witness”. I’ve mentioned this experience previously, and its importance to my own research here.

.However, what was especially interesting was the difference in content between Cameron’s recording and mine. In the local history version the stories were of playing tennis socially and competitively, social outings and people she knew including some relating to the Dorfprozelten descendants though it’s obvious she had no idea of this prior link. My tape of our conversations is about family connections and stories. Both are valuable and offer quite different dimensions to family and life in rural Queensland in the early years of the 1900s.

diaryORAL PERSONAL HISTORY

I think it’s important that we don’t leave our own life stories as a blank page for our families. We know how much we’d love to have heard or seen our ancestors or to have something they’d written. It’s up to us to ensure that we leave a suitable legacy for our own descendants.

 SUMMARY

 Have you had any successes in recording and documenting your family’s history orally? Do you find it easy to do or challenging? I know I find it quite difficult and don’t think it’s one of my strengths.