The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1990, Volume 36, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Plain as a Pipestem: Essays About Local History.

By Carol Kammen. Interlaken, New York: Heart of the Lakes Publishing, 1989. 114 pages. $15.00.

Reviewed by Raymond Starr, Professor of History, San Diego State University, author of San Diego: A Pictorial History.

In recent years Carol Kammen has become one of the nation’s leading exponents of and instructors in local and community history. Her contributions include extensive activity in local history as an author of local history books, a local history newspaper column, plays based on local history, work with her town’s centennial commission, and teaching about local history at Cornell University. Kammen has also authored one of the most respected and most accessible books on community history, On Doing Local History: Reflections on What Local Historians Do, Why, and What it Means, which was published by the American Association for State and Local History in 1986. Now she is adding to her reputation with the publication of Plain as a Pipestem: Essays about Local History. This book is a compilation of essays which were originally published in New York History between 1984 and 1988. For local historians outside of New York, the publication of Plain as a Pipestem is a real treat.

In these essays, Kammen explores a number of issues, problems, and topics pertaining to the doing of local history–and she explores them with the same informed, common-sensical approach she exhibited in On Doing History. (Indeed, since some of the essays were written before that book, you will find here some of the same themes, examples, and points of view). She has organized the essays around four topics: the subject of local history, local historians, local history in New York State, and “The Future of the Past.”

The points and values Kammen explores are well taken. For example, she argues for broadening the coverage of history to include racial and ethnic minorities, failures as well as successes, women, and the underprivileged–but to supplement traditional historical topics, not to replace them. Kammen also explores some of the ethical problems of writing history in a community in which one lives. She makes a persuasive case for documentation and footnotes, and explains some of the pitfalls of indexes. She also tries to define local historians, in terms of what they do and what skills, attitudes and insights they ought to have. The author even addresses the problem of what should happen to the notes of the local historian when he or she passes on!

Kammen’s three selections on New York history–in which she describes New York municipal and county historians and appraises local history in New York today–may not seem of interest to most readers of the Journal of San Diego History. In fact, they are very useful for telling us about how another state promotes its local history, and thus gives Californians some ideas to explore and some models to suggest to our communities and our state government.

In “The Future of History,” Kammen offers some helpful suggestions as to how historical societies might think of their audiences and thus broaden their programs and their membership. She also speaks to local archivists about the need for active collecting (which she calls “salting the archives”), and offers some good guidelines as to how they might approach it, including reference to an 1804 questionnaire the New-York (sic) Historical Society used.

The impact of Kammen’s book is considerable; it brings us some very rational insights into the nature, subjects, and problems of writing local history. It is done by someone who both knows her subject, and obviously loves it. Despite two deficiencies (the absence of a bibliography or list of suggested additional readings, and the absence of an index), Plain as a Pipestem is a book which, along with Kammen’s On Doing History and David Kyvig and Myron Marty’s Nearby History: Exploring the Past Around You (1982), should form the core of any local historian’s reference library.

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