The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1994, Volume 40, Numbers 1 & 2
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Richard Griswold del Castillo, Book Review Editor

Interpreting Local Culture and History.

Edited by J. Sanford Rikoon and Judith Austin. Moscow, Idaho: University of Idaho Press, 1991. Photographs. 180 pages.

Reviewed by Vincent S. Ancona, Researcher, San Diego Historical Society.

The increased interest in local history during the past twenty years has spawned a corresponding increase in the number of “how-to” books on the subject. At first glance, Interpreting Local Culture and History appears to be such a book. However, the book’s foreword and introduction quickly demonstrate otherwise. The book is actually a collection of papers that were presented at two conferences in Idaho in 1982. In the foreword, Lawrence De Graaf writes that the goal of the conferences was to bring together the often opposing views of local history held by the historical societies and the universities. The book is divided into three sections, one on non-traditional types of source material, one on the use of oral histories, and one on cultural stereotypes. Each section follows a specific format. First, two or three essays are presented by individuals, be they professors or museum curators, who are experienced in that particular field. A brief critical commentary by a different writer follows and then the original authors are given a chance to make a rebuttal.

The first section is by far the longest and also the most interesting. It attempts to demonstrate, by way of example, a few of the many different types of non-conventional source materials for local historians. Separate essays look at the use of artifacts, photographs, industrial buildings and sites, and popular culture as alternative means to interpret the past. I found the essay on industrial sites by T. Allan Comp particularly interesting. Comp demonstrates how both a smelter in Tooele, Utah and a Mormon tabernacle in Salt Lake City reveal information about the people and conditions surrounding their construction that is not readily available elsewhere. For example, the smelter made use of innovative anti-polluting devices, even though it was built between 1910 and 1915, long before such methods were commonplace. According to Comp, this was a reaction to a 1908 lawsuit by farmers in the area who charged that previous smelters were damaging their farms with smoke and pollution.

The section on oral history contains three essays, two of which deal with evaluating the truth and reliability of information obtained from oral sources. While these articles are interesting, any useful information they contain regarding oral histories is covered in much more depth in any number of books and journals dedicated to the subject. What I found more enjoyable about this section was the debate over the value and use of oral history in the commentary and response sections. Commentator Elaine J. Lawless criticizes the authors of the essays for being too caught up in the veracity and reliability of oral history narrators. She goes on to argue that oral histories are valuable not only for the verifiable, factual information that they contain, but for their emotional and personal interpretations of events.

The final section on cultural stereotypes is the shortest, but contains three well-written essays. Susan Armitage’s article on women on the frontier and Patricia Ourada’s piece on the Mexican experience in Idaho are both intriguing and readable for the factual information they contain. Alan G. Marshall’s essay on Euro-American attitudes and Native Americans does a good job demonstrating just how our cultural biases shape and mold the way in which we interpret the history of a people outside of our frame of reference.

The book does have a few weak spots. The quality of the essays is somewhat uneven; some are quite readable and interesting, while others read like speeches that have been set down on paper verbatim, complete with the droll little stories that speakers use to break the ice at these conferences. The book is clearly addressed to academics and museum types within the local history sphere; little effort is made to bring the novice historian into the fold. In this sense, the book is somewhat narcissistic. Additionally, all of the articles deal with historical topics in the Pacific Northwest and Great Basin. While this is not a shortcoming in itself, the devotee of San Diego or California history will find less material of interest, although the methodologies demonstrated are applicable to nearly any region.

While not a particularly outstanding book, Interpreting Local Culture and History does have something to offer the practicing local historian who is seeking to elevate the level of his or her historical research and scholarship. If nothing else, the book offers a good glimpse into the diverse and fascinating possibilities that local history has to offer.