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On the immeasurable value of local historical expertise

As an undergraduate student in the early 2000s, one of my first original historical research projects involved documenting the history of a local war memorial. Being new to the idea of ‘archival research’, I approached my lecturer for advice, and they suggested that I start with the local historical society.

As I stepped through the front doors of the building, as a very nervous young history student, I was met with several kind faces who immediately dropped what they were doing to help me out. They asked what I was doing and why I was doing it, and guided me towards some local records from the era. They helped set me up for with a microfilm reader and showed me how the machine worked, and within a few minutes I was locating juicy records of community meetings (fights) over how the war memorial should be built, who should pay for it, whose names it should list and what it should look like. Building on this, they guided me towards other local records and some local historians who knew more about the background to those events. I was immediately hooked!

Much of that primary material is now available online, and we can do increasingly large volumes of research from the comfort of our own homes, but that can never surpass the value of taking a personal visit to a local or family historical society, museum or archive. The wealth of knowledge staff possesses, and their general eagerness to listen, help and ensure that your research trip is progressing smoothly, is of immeasurable value.

In the University of New England (UNE)’s foundation history unit – HINQ1000: What is History? – we discuss the availability of online records and how convenient they are, and how they are changing many of the ways that we approach our research. But I always emphasise the incomparable value of visiting those archives in person and speaking to those local societies, archivists, curators, managers, researchers, historians, volunteers and so forth.

Thus, one of the tasks I set for students is to make contact with someone who has local expertise. My hope, in setting this task, is to inspire our history students and to get them hooked on history, just as I was some two decades ago! So, if you haven’t done so lately, take a trip down to your local historical society, museum or archive, say hello and get hooked on history!

Associate Professor Nathan Wise Public and Applied History, University of New England (UNE)

Pictured: iStock: Aeduard 185215276

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