This chapter focuses on the growth of access to records, and then at the way research has developed as a result of the consequent growth in the quantity and quality of records available to the local historian. One of the key problems for local historians in the past was access to sources. Various classes of public records were available for consultation, but these were widely scattered, and would-be researchers required plentiful resources of both time and money. The desire to improve access to research materials was one of the reasons that record publishing became popular in the nineteenth century. Every published edition of a source extended the range of possibilities for both national and local historians, but it was the principle of public responsibility for records, which really stimulated change. The founding of the Public Record Office in the mid-nineteenth century improved access to the national archives, and from 1889 the principle of local responsibility for archives was enshrined in the legislation creating county councils.
This chapter focuses on the status of current local history. Today local history needs to be issue driven, and should not just be source driven. A local historian might become interested in studying the past because they find a collection of documents, whether these are house deeds or newspapers or something similar, but studying only the one source is never going to produce good quality local history. As the range of sources has widened, the need to link the material together has also grown. All historians recognise that the wealthier the evidence, the stronger the case being made. Training is partly designed to raise awareness. Not knowing or understanding the nature of evidence given to the 1842 Royal Commission on the Employment of Children would significantly disadvantage the local historian interested in the social structure of the Durham coalfield in the nineteenth century. This is because of the light it sheds on the communities of the Durham coalfield, which can usefully be combined with evidence from local newspapers and literary sources.
This chapter concludes the study on the origin of local history. Local history today can hardly be defined in a simple, straightforward manner. Perhaps no history can, but there is a particular difficulty with local history because it is place-specific rather than subject-specific. It is neither rural nor urban, despite the growth of urban history, medieval or modern, economic or political, and therein lies the problem, because ‘local’ still has overtones in the society of parochial. In university history departments, it is passed by in favour of student demand for Holocaust studies and the fascist dictatorships of twentieth-century Europe. It still inhabits a world of voluntary societies and some surviving adult education classes where it can be safely sidelined by professional historians, who can rest assured that their study of contexts, issues and concepts, published by academic presses after a rigorous process of peer review, represent real scholarship.