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A Meaningful Conversation on Local History

by Bethany L. Hawkins on

On Wednesday, May 27, Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, TN, hosted an after-hours conversation for the history community with noted author and local historian Carol Kammen. AASLH’s Chief Operating Officer Bob Beatty moderated the conversation, and I was lucky enough to get to sit in on the program. Carol is a visiting public historian leading a three-week Maymester course for MTSU history graduate students.

John Dichtl and Carol Kammen at MTSU

John Dichtl and Carol Kammen at MTSU

Carol challenged her audience to think about the power of local history. “What local history can do,” she said, “is open up the past for people.” She used stories from her long career in the field to show the impact that local history can have on the community as well as those who research and write the history.

One project in her town has created lasting effects. Based on a Chinese example, Carol sent out a request for everyone in the community of Ithaca to send a story about one day in their life. She picked a single date –May 17, 1988. The community responded in droves, with hundreds of stories pouring in for the project. The result was a model for trying to tell the story of a whole community, person by person, which has truly filled a gap in the historical record of the town of Ithaca in 1988. Carol remarked how moved many of the people were just to be asked to share their story. She challenged those in attendance to think about who they could ask to leave a record of history on the local level whose story might not otherwise be told.

Local history is often insular, but should not be. How many times do we as historians get caught up on our research and telling the story we think is important to our community? Carol pointed out how much more might be added to our understanding of the past if we reached out to local historians in neighboring towns and counties to see how our research can tie into what was going on in their communities during the time. What are the common stories that can help connect us and add vital context?

Finally, she encouraged us to not shy away from difficult stories. She said, “Local history should ask moral questions.” It is important that local historians address difficult topics in a meaningful way.

It was a pleasure to listen to Carol’s thoughts and experiences. Since 1995, Carol’s column, “On Doing Local History,” has appeared regularly in our magazine, History News. Her books include On Doing Local History, The Pursuit of Local History: Readings on Theory and Practice, the Encyclopedia of Local History, and Zen and the Art of Local History. She will also be our awards banquet speaker at the 2015 Annual Meeting in Louisville. If the event at MTSU is any indication, banquet attendees will be in for a treat.

Bethany L. Hawkins is Program Manager at AASLH.

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