The Difference Between a Local Historian and an Academic Historian

By Joanne Doucette

Do you enjoy reading local history? Would you like to know more about the past of your neighbourhood? If you do, please read this.

Most, but not all, people who research and write about the history of neighbourhoods do not have advanced academic degrees, such as the very Harry Potterish picture of Professor John Ashley Soames Grenville, historian, taken in 1950 (Public Domain) featured above. The local historian is, like me, an amateur not a professional.

Many academic historians look down on local historians as muddlers who don’t get the big picture. And sometimes that is true, but often not.

Local history is a very democratic kind of practice, drawing on community histories (e.g., in the local history collections of our branch libraries), family history, genealogy and oral history. The best local history relies on meticulous and careful use of original and secondary sources as well as ongoing discussion with professional historians. But local historians have limited resources. Not everyone has the money to get those letters behind the name. We do not have access to the records, the peer-review process, conferences and journals of the academic historian. We rely on sources and our works are published informally – on blogs, Facebook groups, etc. My peers are those who read my posts and blogs and respond. And I am very grateful to you. But I rely on sources and sources are not always right.

There are basically two kinds of sources – primary sources and secondary sources.

A Census is an example of a primary source.

Primary Sources

Primary sources are things like newspaper accounts, letters, marriage licenses, death certificates, baptismal certificates, tax assessment rolls, etc. They are usually reliable but have to be “handled with care”. Sometimes original sources contain simple mistakes. Sometimes the originator actually lied. Sometimes they didn’t know what they were talking about. Not so different than today. Usually, the records are biased in ways that we now recognize – racist, sexist, etc.

This is an example of a secondary source. The writer of the caption was not there in 1783 when King George presented the fire engine. Fire Engine, Maclean’s, September 1, 1929

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are records written after the event. The writers rely on records that they might not understand or they may not have researched adequately. Or they too can intentionally distort the truth, often with “little white lies” that romanticize things – the “good old days”, etc.

The story of my family’s mixed MI’kmaq and European ancestry is oral history passed down by word of mouth through the generations depicted here. Family photos: Susan Brewer (nee Doucette), Thomas Leo Doucette and Agnes Lucy (nee Devenish) and Thomas Vincent Doucette.

Oral History

And then there’s oral history. Memories fail and stories passed down often begin to stray from the facts though there’s usually a core that can be verified through researching primary and secondary sources – which leads me back to where I wanted to go.

An original baptismal record confirming the Indigenous roots of my family

Why am I saying all this?

When the Leslieville Historical Society wrote up a plaque to the Underground Railroad two years ago, we made a mistake. The quote didn’t begin to appear until 2007. We relied on secondary sources, even a leading U.S. politician, and the Harriet Tubman Monument and other apparently reliable sources for the following quote:

A contemporary illustration of Harrriet Tubman

“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” -Harriet Tubman (1822-1913)

The Harriet Tubman Monument, Beaufort, South Carolina, from a Global News report

But, as a Toronto historian brought to my attention, Harriet Tubman said no such thing.

Here’s the back story. We did our best three years ago in terms of due diligence, believing our sources were valid and checking with various authorities, including some friendly folks with PhDs. We also ran the wording by the Ontario Black History Society which suggested some changes which we duly made. They shared generously of their time and sent representatives to the unveiling. While they gave us the go-ahead, the responsibility lies with us and more particularly me.

Here’s a quote from Harriet Tubman in a book from 1869 that we could have/should have used.:

“When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven”.

Harriet Tubman

Sometimes, as when I wrote a small paragraph about Black World War one hero, Jeremiah Jones seven years ago, I did not have access to primary sources. I found nothing in the news of 1914-1920 about him and could not access his military records as they were not digitized yet.

So, I followed the lead of the CBC and noted that he was wounded at Vimy and Passchendaele. The journalist apparently relied on family history as recounted by a descendant, Adam Jones.…/jeremiah-jones-black-wwi-war-hero

Jones was wounded at Vimy Ridge but not the other battle. (Yesterday I downloaded his military records online and double-checked.)

The Historian as Detective by Matt (CC BY-NC 2.0) FlickR

We work diligently to uncover lost histories but ask for fairness and respect for the work we get right and the service we provide to our communities. It is fair to ask for some courtesy when our sources fail us.

Public shaming is far from helpful and comes across as an attempt to silence. If local historians were to be silent, then the stories of ordinary families on ordinary streets would be lost. And I for one think that would be a shame because all families are extraordinary and all streets have stories to tell. We need to respect each other.

To quote a perceptive article:

“The academic historian is the discipline expert. They therefore have a responsibility to provide leadership. They should inspire amateur historians to increase their standards of scholarship. This needs understanding, trust and encouragement from academics. Not paternalism.”

The Conversation, April 3, 2012…

This photograph is from the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America and has no known copyright restrictions.


A Local Historian & Oral History

Biography: Kathleen Adams, a graduate of Atlanta University in 1911, taught in the public schools of Atlanta for about 34 years, and also at the Carrie Steele Pitts Home, an institution for the care of orphans. She retired from teaching in 1957. A member of one of the prominent Black families of Atlanta, Mrs. Adams showed an early interest in history. She has preserved the history of her family in documents and memorabilia and has made tapes for the local historical society on the history of the Atlanta public schools. At the time of her interview, she was the historian and oldest active member of the First Congregational Church in Atlanta. 

Description: The Black Women Oral History Project interviewed 72 African American women between 1976 and 1981. With support from the Schlesinger Library, the project recorded a cross section of women who had made significant contributions to American society during the first half of the 20th century.

Photograph taken by Judith Sedwick 

Repository: Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. 

Collection: Black Women Oral History Project”

Back to photostreamSchlesinger Library on the History of Women in AmericaFollow

Published by Leslieville Historical Society

Welcome to the Leslieville Historical Society's website. Please feel free to join us, to ask questions, to attend walking tours and other events, and to celebrate Leslieville's past while creating our future. Guy Anderson, President, Leslieville Historical Society and Joanne Doucette, local historian and webmaster.

4 thoughts on “The Difference Between a Local Historian and an Academic Historian

  1. Thanks so very much for sending this to me. I look forward to receiving these. Especially on Rolph Clark Stone. I would really like to contact someone who worked there as I did many years ago. Visited the building last year and was able to enter it and walk up the amazing staircase to the second floor.

    On Sat, Nov 13, 2021 at 7:50 AM Leslieville Historical Society wrote:

    > Leslieville Historical Society posted: ” By Joanne Doucette Do you enjoy > reading local history? Would you like to know more about the past of your > neighbourhood? If you do, please read this. Most, but not all, people who > research and write about the history of neighbourhoods do not have a” >

    1. Hi there, there are a number of people on the Leslieville Historical Facebook page who worked or whose family worked at Rolph Clark Stone. You might want to post there and see if you get a response. Best wishes, Joanne

  2. Hi Joanne, Hope this email finds you doing well. Thanks again for sending all this recent history—fascinating. I mentioned your work to some of the current residents of Austin Avenue. Btw, my wife and I once wrote a biopic script about Harriet Tubman called ‘Sweet Freedom’. We were amateurs without an agent and our multi-year efforts to sell the script to Hollywood proved to be very difficult. We took advantage of my having once written a major paper about her back when I was at York University, i.e. no historical consultant was necessary. Anyway, when I first saw that plaque on Queen Street with that supposed quote attributed to Harriet, I knew instantly that she’d never said any such thing. Words to that effect absolutely, but nowhere had I ever come across that specific quote. I chose not to mention it to anyone coz the plaque serves the spirit of her incredible efforts. Good for you for clarifying this quote though. cheers Gregg LaMarsh retired teacher former rock drummer feeder of birds

    *PS are you aware of the incredible, record-setting cash windfall that both Morse St PS (the school where I taught, along with Bruce PS) plus Riverdale C.I. each were lucky enough to enjoy recently?

    1. No, I hadn’t heard anything about a cash windfall for Morse Street Public School. That’s great.

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