U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service
III. The National Register of Historic Places
The National Register is the nation's official list of historic places important to our history and worthy of preservation, but it is also a unique and unprecedented archive of national, state, and local history. During the early years of the program, properties were nominated "either as stage sets for past events and people or as illustrations of works of art set in chronologically ordered style periods." (2) By the late 1970s, National Register guidance began to respond to changing ideas of what constituted historic places and to the need to tie registration to comprehensive preservation planning programs. Historic properties are now studied within an appropriated context - most often at the local level - and that context serves as the framework for evaluating the significance for both individual properties and groups of properties related by location or theme. Historic contexts cover topics ranging from local civic buildings - such as county courthouses, public libraries, and schools - to ethnic settlements, historic farmsteads, the architecture of the post-World War II period, railroad depots, prehistoric archeological sites, and hydroelectric plants. Even national events have now been reinterpreted to understand their local impact, such as the influence of World War II on the growth and development of defense housing in a community. Multiply this potential by tens of thousands of listings and it is easy to appreciate the importance of the National Register archives. Neither professional historians nor the general public has fully tapped the history contained in the files of the National Register.
The creation of the National Register coincided with the dawning of what was then called the "new social history." Where once historians pored over the papers of the political leaders of the nation's past, today they study building permits, census records, wills, diaries, deeds, and newspapers as well. They also pursue information not found in written records, such as oral histories and the material culture of everyday life. This new direction for historical research transformed the study of history in the academic community, historical societies and museums, and among historic preservations. The National Register's commitment to identifying the historic places that are important to local communities, as well as those of national significance, that represent both everyday life and exceptional events, reflects these changes.
This broad history can appeal to a large constituency beyond academic boundaries. The stories contained in National Register nominations can help the nation see history not only as great national events in which only a few participated, but as a cavalcade of events, trends, and patterns that still affect our lives today, including many ethnic and cultural groups as participants. The public is drawn to history that relates to their everyday lives, and that can give their own lives meaning.
(2) Bernard L. Herman, "The 'New' Social History,"CRM, Vol. 17, No. 2 (1994), p.6.
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