The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1983, Volume 29, Number 2
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor


Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

Using Local History in the Classroom. By Fay D. Metcalf and Matthew T. Downey. Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1982. Illustrations. Appendices. Index. 284 pages. $15.95.

Reviewed by Howard Holter, Professor of History and Director, Master’s Degree Program in Public History and Historic Preservation, California State University, Dominguez Hills.

The publication of this excellent volume is significant in several ways. First, it opens one’s eyes to the tremendous number of projects in local history being undertaken in this country today and the diverse people involved in them. The vast array of sources and projects described lends credence to the authors’ quotation of the statement that “Local and community history may well be one of the fastest-growing popular intellectual pursuits in the United States today.” Second, its exhaustive review of the disciplines and methodologies employed in local history—including architecture, the New Social History, artifact study, oral history, family history, historical photography analysis, census research, and the like—should put to rest any doubts about local history study coming of age. And thirdly, the book demonstrates with resounding force that the teaching and learning of local history—at all educational levels—is not only within reach of every teacher, but can also be among the most exciting educational endeavors one can pursue.

The title of this book is far too narrow. Although the book is one of the best “how to” classroom guides this reviewer has ever seen, the projects, skills, and perspectives brought forth will be of great use to anyone working or thinking of working in the area of local history. Despite its emphasis on secondary teaching, the materials and suggestions can easily be adapted by historical agency personnel, university professors, museum education personnel, and anyone who works in communities generally. Included in the book are a multitude of practical guides, set forth in the body of the work, appendices, and footnotes. Among these are: walking tours;  census analysis; Oral interview techniques; quantitative data guides; building analyses; recording cemetery data; developing research strategies; and setting up a local history course. In addition, sources for further information abound, and range from solid scholarly references, to agencies involved in specific projects throughout the country, to obscure newsletters in various areas.

While the style and tone of this work are eminently clear and practical, the authors do not talk down to the reader. Metcalf and Downey reveal a solid grounding in the field of history—the chapter dealing with the New Social History, for example, is sophisticated and solid. Good portions of the book include what amounts to a series of bibliographical essays on many of the fields in which local history is based.

It is difficult to find a better book on the current thinking and practice of local history. The authors and their publisher, The American Association for State and Local History, are to be warmly congratulated for a book that will continue to be used and appreciated for the foreseeable future.The only flaw in the study is the noticeable lack of attention to special problems involved with the local history of Black Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Asian Americans (only two pages even touch on the subject). Perhaps a separate book on the role of these groups in local history is now in order.