Learning About Local History

People often ask me how they can learn more about the history of their local built environment. I’ve put together a list of specific strategies for learning about local history. For me, understanding history is a way of understanding the present. History lets us know why that one street is at an angle to the grid, or why your neighborhood is so segregated. But people also use history to sell their location to others so be careful about boosters who will try and minimize the nastier bits of local history.

Libraries are a great place to start learning more about the history of where you live. Many libraries have special collections dedicated to local history that contain things like old maps, archives of local papers, and yearbooks for local high schools. Also a reference librarian can help you find good resources even if there isn’t a special collection.

Another good resource is local historical societies. Even quite small towns will sometimes have these — so don’t assume that one doesn’t exist until you look. If you can’t find anything online it is worth asking a local librarian. If you do find one these, contact them and ask them questions or if you don’t know where to just ask them for advice on that. Some local historical societies have museums as well, these can be interesting starting places with a lot of old photos and such.

You can also go look at formal records at city hall. These are not generally very accessible in that they are often hard to get at and hard to make sense of. You will probably have to physically go to the location the records are kept which will only be open during business hours. It can also cost money to take pictures of or photocopy records for latter study.  However more and more records are starting to go online.

What kind of records might a city keep? I would expect to find things like the minutes of city council meetings, records of property ownership, old blueprints, records of permits, maybe even photos of historic occasions. There might be restrictions on some records. Things like deed transfers can be technical, and hard to make sense of, and meeting minutes often say what was done but not why. So these types of documents are therefore not the best starting place but can help supplement the overall picture, or provide specific details

Local history focused walking tours can be a good resource though of course they are not available everywhere. Walking tours can be really fun and the people who give them generally do a lot of research on the topic. Some walking tours are just general history focused but some deep dives into specific topics. For example I’ve been on a walking tour about the history of South Asians in my city. Walking tours are nice because they engaged several senses at once. Plus it can be nice to learn about history while moving around outside.

The final strategy I’m going to talk about is developing your eye for historically relevant detail. This a bunch of work but I personally find it very rewarding. If you start with some of the resources above you will probably start to learn a bit of the things to look for. You can use architectural details to give you clues to when buildings were built. Books such as A Field Guide to American Houses can help you learn more about how buildings have changed overtime. The internet also has architectural history resources.

However some of these details can be misleading since people update buildings, add new siding, upgrade windows, and add whole additions. And some telling details are only available inside of buildings which you probably don’t have access to. So it’s also good to learn to look for things like street patterns that don’t change as much. Once you’ve build a street it’s much harder to change. For example railroad towns tend to have square grids oriented towards the railroad tracks. You can also learn about general trends in planning history, like Urban renewal and redlining. The nice thing about learning to read the urban landscape is that it not only helps you learn about where you live but also about places you visit.

Learning about your local history can be a lot of fun, and understanding how your city was put together and why can help you make better choices about how to change it in the future. Cities and buildings should not be static. While it’s important to remember history its also important to adapt to the present.

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