Writing Local History

Show Town: Theatre and Culture in the Pacific Northwest 1890-1920 by Holly George is an engaging read. This is a very enjoyable book, partly because it is focused on Spokane, and partly because George has a knack for writing interesting prose. A quick skimming of Holly George’s sources for Show Town shows that she utilized many unpublished sources like personal letters, diaries, and census records. She also voiced frustrations that most “records about Spokane’s theatrical experience come from middle-class sources,” which is an important detail for readers to be aware of. (5) George, much like Thrush in Native Seattle, successfully used a specific topic to inform readers about a much broader subject. Theatre was used as a jumping off point to examine morality, gender roles, societal norms, class divisions, and sexuality in early Spokane.

As demonstrated by Show Town, local history requires the use of both published and unpublished sources. Chapter 4 of Nearby History points out that, whatever the source, “historians do not passively read documents.” (2) Chapter 5 goes on to say that it is important to examine documents with a critical eye because the people creating these sources did not make them for “the convenience of some hypothetical future historian.” (3) Thankfully, it is a great time to be a local historian. Technology has provided instantaneous access to a vast amount of information, although in the field of local history some legwork is almost always necessary. When considering online access to information, modern researchers should also keep in mind the “perils of relying on private corporations to provide what could be a public utility.” R.I.P. Google Newspaper Archive. Forever in our hearts. It also it worth reiterating that no matter where information is obtained it is possible that it is erroneous.  Often time biases, intentional omissions, or honest to goodness mistakes work their way into documents. “There is a natural tendency to assume that information in cold, hard print must be accurate,” but historians should remember that even the U.S. National Archives has contained information that has proven inaccurate. (6)

Sometimes local historians are required to look to unique sources for information. Even something like a piece of art can communicate information about the person or event depicted and the community that commissioned it. A statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate lieutenant general and the first Grand Wizard of the KKK, has recently caused a stir in Memphis.

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Nathan Bedford Forrest in 1863. Source: Library of Congress

The city council voted to move the statue of the Confederate poster boy from a park in downtown Memphis to a cemetery, but the Tennessee Historical Commission denied the relocation. Regardless of the controversy, many details about the past and present community can be gathered from examining the statue.  For example, Nate DiMeo’s podcast “The Memory Palace” explains that even though the artist wanted the statue to face south to catch the light better, the community demanded that Forrest face northwards so it didn’t appear that he was retreating. Information like this may not be apparent when observing something around town, but with a little digging and critical thinking local historians can glean useful information from almost anything.

 

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2 comments

  1. Josh Van Veldhuizen · 21 Days Ago

    I’m also enjoying Show Town right now, and in my own blog I talked how I think part of that is because it’s about Spokane. Having grown up in the region I think I find things interesting that I normally wouldn’t have if the content deals with the local area. This book is a good example because I’m not really into theater, but I’m much more interested in this topic because it feels more personal to me. I know that’s no really a bias that I should be excited about but if it helps expand my interests then I don’t really mind!

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  2. lachku0130 · 21 Days Ago

    I like how you checked out the resources that George used and discovered how she used typically un-tapped resources like diaries and letters. This tied in so well with what “Nearby History” talked about. Great job tying it all together! I also got a chuckle out of this line “R.I.P. Google Newspaper Archive. Forever in our hearts.” So true, how could they take away such a great tool from researchers, brings a tear to my eye just thinking about it! 😉

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