CRM Journal

Book Review

On Doing Local History

By Carol Kammen. Second Edition; Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press and American Association of State and Local History, 2003; 189 pp., notes, index; cloth $70.00; paper $24.95.


On Doing Local History cover

Carol Kammen's On Doing Local History is a rare book, a sophisticated methodological study aimed at amateur historians who search out their communities' past. In the rush by historians to professionalize the field, amateur practitioners have been left out of conversations concerning the nature of historical knowledge and the art of interpretation. In its second edition, On Doing Local History seeks to remedy that situation, offering amateur historians a thoughtful discussion of the "conditions and traditions" under which they labor.

To be clear, Kammen's book is not a "how-to" manual. While she teaches readers how to interrogate sources and ask probing questions, she does not focus on the nuts and bolts of historical research. As Kammen acknowledges, those looking for research assistance might consult the Nearby History series published by AltaMira Press and the American Association for State and Local History or the Encyclopedia of Local History, which Kammen co-edited with Norma Prendergast.(1) Instead, On Doing Local History focuses on issues of interpretation, inspiring local historians to practice their craft with self-awareness and deliberation.

On Doing Local History begins with a history of local history. Fraught with commercialism, boosterism, and self-interest, local history's past proves more interesting than one might imagine. By examining the limitations of the different groups who produced local history, Kammen also demonstrates why contemporary authors should not rely on earlier works as their models. Explaining that a community's relationship to the past changes with new social and cultural concerns, Kammen encourages contemporary writers to tackle subjects ignored by earlier authors. Indeed, Kammen suggests that writers create what she calls an "anti-index," a list of topics left out of existing histories. By examining the patterns and themes of their anti-indexes, Kammen believes writers will locate their own interests and ideas. For those who do not go to these lengths, Kammen also provides lists of suggested and neglected subjects. These include local politics, labor, domestic life, the recent past, and crime.

Kammen's exhortation that local historians expand their subject matter runs throughout the book and represents one of her most valuable contributions. By encouraging local historians to ask questions and seek new sources, Kammen introduces them to the techniques and concerns of social history, which include sensitivity to ethnic and racial groups, the working class, and women. In addition, Kammen confronts the cultural construction of historical knowledge saying that recorded history happens "in the mind of the historian" and is thus "subject to the interests, intelligence, and even the preoccupations and era of each individual historian." Kammen explores such theoretical material with concrete examples and accessible language. For example, she uses the Enola Gay controversy to explain how different groups can forge divergent histories out of a single event.

Kammen provides valuable advice about working and writing in the public sphere. Because local historians' subjects of study often coincide with their audiences' interests, Kammen argues that they have a tendency to "self-censor," to ignore controversial or divisive topics in favor of those promoting a positive community image. Communities often believe that local history should be "promotional of place" and historians who fail to live up to this injunction might very well find privately held records closed to them. But while Kammen cautions against violating individuals' privacy, she rallies against the notion that history must be complimentary: "In presenting local history as always positive, we deny the fact that the past was as controversial and complicated as we know the present to be." By frankly discussing both the pressures and responsibilities associated with working in a community, Kammen provides local historians the strength to stand by their convictions.

On Doing Local History is filled with other nuggets of good advice, from how (and why) to credit your sources, to the importance of reading historical scholarship outside of your geographic scope, and the value of sharing ideas with other community scholars. Extensively revised, the new edition reflects Kammen's years of experience in the field and responds to current concerns. For example, Kammen adds an important discussion of roadside historical markers in which she demonstrates the misleading and even damaging histories that can be produced with a selective presentation of the facts. Kammen also peppers her new edition with fresh suggestions for promoting local history. One of my favorites is for a national document exchange day in which local historians trade documents relevant to each other's locale.

While On Doing Local History is invaluable for its intended audience, its worth for professional historians is more limited. Graduate students in public history will find Kammen's advice on working with communities helpful, as will traditional students looking for straight-talk on professionalism and historical practice. But for historians trained in social history, Kammen's book will offer little that is new. While one can hardly expect the book's approach to appeal to all audiences, Kammen might have tackled the difficult issue of the professional historians' role in local history. Kammen takes on this subject when she criticizes professional historians for their failure to "share in the study of local history," but ultimately she fails to articulate why or how professionals should get involved.

Recent scholarship in the field of public memory shows that Americans need to examine the value of local history. In their much-cited study of popular perceptions of the past, Roy Rozenzweig and David Thelen found that only 4 percent of their national sample ranked their communities' past as "most important" in comparison to the pasts of family, nation, and racial or ethnic group.(2) While more work needs to be done to encourage Americans to appreciate their communities' stories, On Doing Local History has the potential to make local history both socially relevant and politically powerful.

Briann G. Greenfield
Central Connecticut State University



1. David E. Kyvig and Myron A. Marty, Nearby History: Exploring the Past Around You, 2nd Edition (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press and American Association of State and Local History, 2002); Carol Kammen and Norma Prendergast, eds., Encyclopedia of Local History (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press and American Association of State and Local History, 2000).

2. Roy Rozenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).