Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor
Nearby History: Exploring the Past Around You. By David E. Kyvig and Myron A. Marty. Nashville, Tennessee: The American Association for State and Local History, 1982. Bibliographies, Photographs, Appendices. Index. xiii, 300 pages. $15.95.
Reviewed by Lawrence B. de Graaf, Professor of History and Director of the Oral History Program, California Stale University, Fullerton.
Nearby History is clearly a book with several missions. It seeks to serve a wider audience than most scholarly or popular histories address. The authors regard academic and nonacademic historians as sharing common interests, and they hope to promote greater communication and cooperation among them. This goal leads to a second mission: promoting the study of subjects that would be familiar – family, neighborhood, community, or “nearby history.”
The authors equate historically significant events with a series of concentric circles. Most academic historians look to the outer circles, the national and international levels, for major changes and developments. Kyvig and Marty contend that equally significant trends can be found by studying the inner circles of “nearby history.”
Localized study should embrace many resources besides documents. Hence most of this book is an effort to fulfill a third mission: introducing local historians to a wide variety of source materials and issues related to their use and care. Separate chapters explain oral interviews, photographs, artifacts, landscapes and buildings, as well as published and manuscript documents and the preservation of material resources. The text is supplemented by extensive bibliographies and several appendices on forms and organizations. There is unquestionably a need for a book covering these subjects. The dearth of academic history positions has led many students to seek employment in public history fields. These jobs entail the use of such non-documentary sources. While student interest in history has declined, among the general public fascination with the past has seldom been greater. But it is an interest less oriented toward national figures and issues than toward “nearby history.”
Unfortunately, relevance alone does not assure a quality book. Historians will find that Nearby History is an inconsistent tool, useful in some instances but inadequate in others. Its greatest strength is the bibliographies of literature on non-documentary sources. These citations, along with good explanations on interviews, maps, photographs and artifacts, make it a superior beginning work to others in the field of local history. But in their desire to cover resources and reach diverse audiences, the authors have rendered a treatment of topics that will be regarded as either superficial or baffling by different groups of historians.
Academic historians will find the most to criticize. The authors’ concentration on source materials leaves a text that is weak on methodology. Virtually nothing is said about quantitative sources or the theoretical constructs that form the intellectual basis of using various materials. Academic literature is only mentioned in the final chapter, and that is a bibliographic essay rather than an analysis of the broader significance of family and community history. Instructors will find the treatment of how to do research and writing thin, as it is a series of axioms and questions with few examples of carrying those questions into formal topics.
Amateur historians may raise the opposite objection, that in places this book is too sophisticated. In treating landscapes and buildings, the authors enter a realm seldom visited by historians and likely to be confusing. They ably demonstrate technical aspects of using photographs, but again in a manner that may prove too deep for nonprofessionals. A third set of criticisms may come from professional historians outside the academy. Some of their fields, particularly archives and structure preservation, are well summarized. But such other fields as policy analysis, cultural resource evaluation and exhibit design are omitted.
In the final sense, Nearby History is a timely effort to provide a text that will serve the interests of a more broadly defined community of historians. That it fails to match the standards of various segments of that community is a warning on how challenging are the missions these authors have undertaken. These shortcomings suggest that more works, particularly models of writing on local history and for mixed audiences, need to be done before those goals can be realized. For such works, Nearby History will be a valuable introductory tool.