What happened here? How do I research my hometown?
July 27, 2012 11:25 AM   Subscribe

History/Librarian Filter: Inspired by all the interesting London history coming out here, I'd like to start researching my own backyard, but I have little idea where to begin. What resources are typically available if wanted to research an area (US)?

I'd love to win the lottery and devote the rest of my days to creating a blog/geo-referenced wiki thing about a place as odd and interesting as London, but in the meantime I figure I'd get started on my hometown here in the US. I've never really done historical research before, and while I assume the local library may have something, I'd love tips and advice on how to go about researching the history at the neighborhood level of my hometown. If I actually get some interesting history, I'll start something and put it in mefi projects.
posted by gofargogo to Society & Culture (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Most towns of any reasonable size will have a historical society of something like that where the town's history is archived. If not, the local newspaper archives is another good place to start.
posted by COD at 11:34 AM on July 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Librarian here. Your local library may have some things. A local Historical Society would probably have more things. Some counties have planning departments with interesting archives. Then you have oral histories -- you know, talking to the old folks that have lived in the neighborhood for their entire lives, or close to it.

Start with your library, though -- they'll tell you what they have, and they'll also get this question often enough that they'll be familiar with the other resources available in your area. This will probably not include the old folks, though -- that you'll have to find via word of mouth, senior centers, churches, etc.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 11:35 AM on July 27, 2012

If you'd like an American example, the august Historical Society of Pennsylvania has produced PhilaPlace, a site that allows a deeper look at some sites and at local neighborhoods. While it's a work in progress, they've just rolled out a mobile-friendly version as well, which is great for actually exploring. You may also be interested in History Pin, to which individuals, archives, and museums from all over the world have contributed. It might be a good way for you to help pull together ideas or use as a basic foundation for designing something more specifically local! If you are still in Northern California, you might find help at the California Historical Society, this list of Californian historical sites and places, or this very specific one for a US District Court. You may also have luck talking to local universities or colleges; we have an extensive local collection as part of one of our departments, and different professors maintain bibliographies and web resources for the area, so I suspect you may find similar examples local to you.
posted by jetlagaddict at 11:55 AM on July 27, 2012

Best answer: Librarian here. I am an incredible nerd like this and can get really hung up on tracking down stuff that has happened here I live. If I'm just going on a random walk I usually do a few things that will get me started.

- a keyword search on Google Books and/or Open Library to try to find freely readable [in the US before 1927 and some other stuff] texts on a certain topic. There are some cool books you can read that will give you some ideas and also let you know what the words for things are
- a keyword search in an online genealogy service like Heritage Quest. My library has a subscription which means I can log in with my library card and do keyword searches of scanned books, mostly family histories but a lot of other town histories. I find I wind up confused at places like Ancestry.com because i can't figure out where their content is
- talk to local historical societies and/or look at the local history collection in your particular library. Often people who are in the societies are really stoked to get to talk to people who are interested in some little thing and they may have a bunch of realia that you could poke around in or otherwise talk about. Often, too, they don't have stuff scanned or accessible and so sometimes you can kill two birds with one stone by both talking to folks and learning about things but also maybe offering to get something online that wasn't available digitallybefore.
- State historical societies and/or state libraries. A number of my MetaFilter posts have been about some little quirky thing that I learned about while reading a book that I then went and did more research on via state library and historical society websites. Where I live in VT a lot of the tiny towns don't really have that much in the way of online presence, but the state library and the state historical society are good ways to figure out inroads there.
- local newspapers. More and more newspapers are being scanned and indexed online via the Library of Congress's Historic American Newspaper project. If you're especially looking at what was going on at a certain date [reaction to historical event, holiday, etc] this is a great place to start.
- Random searches on Google and more specialized engines. Sometimes I'll come up with the perfect website but it's been offline for five years. Going to the Internet Archive's wayback machine I can sometimes find old stuff that wasn't otherwise findable. And searching library catalogs and websites can sometimes find you local content that wasn't otherwise "surfaced" to crawlers and search engines.

And lastly, yeah, keep notes of what you're up to [screenshots and/or notes in addition to links since links may go away] so that the next person to come after you will find some of the work done for them.
posted by jessamyn at 12:27 PM on July 27, 2012 [9 favorites]

Jessamyn pretty much nailed it. Also want to say this book is a good one for approaching local history research.
posted by bennett being thrown at 1:53 PM on July 27, 2012

You almost certainly have free, unfettered access to the land records department at your local county courthouse. There, you will be able to trace the ownership and history of any given parcel of land in your area. The indexing system may be partially electronic (think "terminals with amber text"), partially microfilm, and partially thick libers (bound folios). You may need to ask for assistance, but it can be fascinating to dip into your town's history this way.
posted by Nomyte at 2:35 PM on July 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Maybe start with a Chain of Title search on where you are currently living? You basically start with the current owner of a property, then work your way back in the public owner and sales records. City Hall is where we would normally start when I did it for my old work pre-internet, but you can end up going to all kinds of government buildings in search of the older records. These can be absolutely fascinating, and give you a good feel for the changing land use over time. Also, the owner names through the years will give you a good jumping off point for additional research.

My favorite resource was always the Sanborn maps, available at the time mostly through local libraries, although I think they are online now too. Originally intended for fire insurance purposes, it's a great resource particularly in conjunction with the info from the chain of title search. Depends on the location, of course - they only really work for well-settled urban areas normally.
posted by gemmy at 10:42 PM on July 27, 2012

As a local historian, I started by reading every book I could get my hands on regarding the history of my area. This journey starts at the public library, making notes all the way. Neighborhoods and their beginnings will often be included, or at least you'll get a handle on who those early movers and shakers were--because they were usually the people who became the developers and real estate investors. If you live in a particularly interesting neighborhood, some old lady from generations past will have written a pamphlet or a book, and the library will probably have a copy, or it will be located in the historical society archives.

After that, it's a matter of keeping track of the questions you have and using the archives and files of both the public library and the local historical societies. As you go, you get to know the local history people (aside from librarians and archivists) and you can ask them specific questions they might know. I also spend a lot of time looking at old maps in both the historical societies and at the City Engineers office, which has these giant old plat books of every piece of town.

All towns have genealogy experts, some of whom even volunteer at the courthouse to help people get a handle on the history of specific properties.

Basically, you need to make connections with the other local history buffs, read everything they've written, and move on from there. I've been working on street names in my mid-sized city, and it starts with histories of the neighborhoods. Just last week, I found a lady who collected a crap-load of oral histories on her neighborhood with the aim of publishing, but never did because she didn't get the proper permissions for all her collecting, I guess. I'm not sure of the legalities, but the point was, a lot of people do the work for a book but never get it out there. I found out about her oral histories in a ten-year-old newspaper article, checked if it had ever made it into public hands, and then looked her up in the phone book. She was happy to lend me her gigantic folder of information.
posted by RedEmma at 8:25 AM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

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