Community history refers to the popular practice of history research and writing in settings outside university history departments, in towns, villages and cities throughout Britain. In some instances, community history has grown out of local history societies; in many more, its widespread appeal in recent years has been inspired by the accessibility of information on the internet, the many projects to emerge around the turn of the new millennium, 'regeneration' initiatives in deprived areas of Britain, and the popularity of television history programmes, such as 'Restoration' and 'Who Do You Think You Are?'
Community history has part of its genealogy in the 'peoples' history' of the 1960s and 1970s. 'History from below', inspired by E. P. Thompson's groundbreaking The Making of the English Working Class,(1) focused on telling the stories of people who had traditionally been excluded from an elite history dominated by politics, foreign policy and male worthies. Initially, the focus was largely on the (still male) working class, but was soon extended to other (overlapping) groups, including women and people from different immigrant communities.
A key feature of 'peoples' history' is the belief that all histories should be acknowledged as History; that the life of a domestic servant or a factory worker is as important, as interesting and as indicative of wider national stories as the traditional elite subjects of history.(2) Practitioners of 'peoples' history' were also committed to enabling the production of history by interested parties outside the academy: thus, QueenSpark in Brighton, for example, now Heritage Lottery funded, has supported people in the production of their own community histories for over 30 years.(3)
'History from below' is believed by many practitioners to have a transformative potential, at both personal and social/political levels. In Britain, as Thompsonian social history was devoured by the Left, women's history became central to the feminist movement of the 1970s, providing inspiration for political campaigns and a context for understanding women's oppression. Black history also combined recovery and critique to challenge the selectivity of mainstream history.(4)
This has been an international phenomenon. For example, the 'dig where you stand' movement in 1970s Sweden, inspired by Sven Lindqvist's book of that title, saw employees researching the labour histories of their own workplaces.(5) Development projects in Latin America and India, drawing on Freirean [J1] techniques to develop literacy, have a view of history implicit in their model for social change. Oral history has also acquired an international reputation for its peculiarly democratising potential; its personal therapeutic function has also been recognised, the importance of allowing people to tell their stories and be heard. The writing of testimonies has become a part of political change, in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for example, or among Chilean survivors of political repression.(6)
Community history has been further developed in Britain as part of 'regeneration' initiatives. 'Regeneration' has been the dominant term in urban planning since the 1980s, replacing the rather more anodyne 'redevelopment' and 'renewal' of the 1960s and 1970s. While the latter tended to focus on a more restricted programme of the physical regeneration of neighbourhoods, particularly slum clearance and housing, 'regeneration' offers a more radical vision of an integrated approach to economic, social/community and environmental aspects of urban change, focusing, in Rob Furbey's words, on 'urban rebirth and sustainable self-renewal'.(7)
It is in relation to the issue of sustainability that community history has found a niche. Since 1997 especially, with the emphasis of New Labour on local democracy and 'active citizenship', various funding streams (including, for example, the Social Exclusion Unit, Round Four of the Single Regeneration Budget, Local Strategic Partnerships, Action Zones, and especially the New Deal for Communities) have given priority to 'capacity building', that is, to empowering people to be able to participate in the urban regeneration process. In building networks, a shared culture and trust – the latter strongly correlated to participation in community politics – community history was identified as contributing to fostering a sustainable change.
Community history projects often include a range of activities: the recording of oral history interviews; encouraging local men and women to produce books and pamphlets on the histories of the locality; collaboration with school teachers to write resource packs which tie in with local history in the National Curriculum; heritage events, treasure days and carnivals; and collecting artefacts, archiving material and creating displays. People may receive some vocational training opportunities: for example, in interviewing or archiving. All of this work is collected on a website and sometimes published as an end-of-project book.(8)
My own small-scale research into the value of community history for its participants reveals that, like reports by oral historians, people experience a range of positive emotions about their involvement: they feel proud of their histories; they see their personal experiences validated; they enjoy the intergenerational connections and see such bonds as contributing to community cohesion.(9)
Community history shares with local history and heritage a potentially fraught relationship with academic history. All three are sometimes seen by professional historians as amateurish, insufficiently rigorous in respect of method and lacking in contextualisation regarding content; they suffer dismissal as a set of stories with little reference to a broader national history.(10)
But while community history projects do not adopt an academic method, we would do well to recall criticisms of the tendency to polarise education and entertainment, and the argument that community history and 'heritage' know how to communicate to a wider audience, which academic history largely fails to do. We can enjoy community history as proof of people's great interest in the subject, and of its significance, beyond the satisfaction of curiosity, in offering a sense of belonging, a pride in place, as a factor in a civic consciousness.
We should also remember the benefits that come from having 'heritage status', in terms of the Heritage Lottery Fund, which has dispersed hundreds of millions of pounds in grants since 1994. Furthermore, here adapting the Sydney-based labour historian Lucy Taksa's discussion of heritage, community history projects often serve to foster 'an emotional link' with the past that can provide people with 'meaning, purpose and value', especially in the context of the economic decline of post-industrial communities. Interest in history is often 'a response by a community to the collapse of its manufacturing base' and may be 'part of an attempt to transform a redundant industrial landscape into a marketable historical commodity'.(11) Lowenthal's point about memories being more precious when under threat is of relevance: 'Like memories, relics once abandoned or forgotten may become more treasured than those in constant use; the discontinuity in their history focuses attention on them, particularly if scarcity or fragility threatens their imminent extinction.'(12)
I try to address these issues on the community history module I run at Sheffield Hallam University, whereby students are attached to a community history project to produce something 'of use' to that project. This year, students have undertaken oral history interviews for a regeneration organisation on Sheffield's Manor Estate; have contributed to developing educational materials about mill life in now largely post-industrial Hebden Bridge; and have researched Black people in Tudor England, doing the groundwork for a forthcoming education pack and workshops by Huddersfield-based educational publishers, Primary Colours.
The tension between community history and the history they have hitherto studied is very tangible during the course, as students enjoy the 'real world' focus of the module and grapple with its relationship to academic method. What they see is not history as a set of neat and seamless stories, but as a messy and exciting process, involving fruitless questions, dead ends and competing interpretations in its production. Indeed, community history can facilitate a critical discussion of both 'history' and 'community': as not about a simple and cosy concept of 'belonging', but concerned with boundaries, exclusions, policing and regulation. While this is most starkly the case for immigrant communities, who may have a problematic relationship to 'English heritage',(13) it is an intrinsic part of community life; and conflicts concerning whose history represents the community, and how to recover 'hidden' stories, reflect the wider concerns of academic history.
Kiveton Park and Wales History Project:
Burngreave Voices, Sheffield:
Wild Rose Heritage and Arts, Hebden Bridge:
East Midlands Oral History Archive:
Eastside Community Heritage, London:
Birmingham Black History:
See also http://www.communityarchives.org.uk/page_id__513_path__0p6p63p62p.aspx
For more good community history websites, see:
Alison Twells is principal lecturer in history at Sheffield Hallam University.