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Manitoba History: Review: Sally Cunningham (ed.), Proceedings of the Local Histories Workshops

by Barry Potyondi
Great Plains Research Consultants, Winnipeg

Manitoba History, Number 1, 1981

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

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This volume, comprising transcripts of thirteen speeches given by professionals and practiced laymen at two local history workshops held at Brandon in 1977 and 1978, purports to be a resource book that “will provide amateur historians with the guidance they seek.” To the discerning, it can be that and much more.

The arrangement of the papers into the categories of researching, compiling and writing, funding, printing, and distribution underscores the range of experience represented at the workshops. Yet for every two participants with experience, there seems to have been only one with expertise. Among the latter is John Bovey, former Manitoba archivist, who provides an introduction to that most useful but least used resource centre for novice historians, the Provincial Archives. Two active local historians, Laura Long and Isabelle Heeney, show clearly the pleasures and the pitfalls of producing community histories. Walter Hlady strips much of the mystery from the topic of government funding available to qualifying local history groups. And Shirley Brockest, dealing with book production and distribution. offers suggestions on ensuring a returnon the investment of time and money needed to complete and sell a local history. These papers, among the most practical in the collection, can be read with profit by anyone undertaking community history writing and marketing.

Killarney golf course

Golf course at Killarney, Manitoba (no date)
Source: Western Canada Pictorial Index

Aside from utility, the book’s best feature is its insight into the state of local history in the province and across the prairies. Fred McGuinness echoes a popular view when he observes that “real local history is only of local interest.” This is surely not true. On the contrary, broadly-researched histories find the most readers and sell quickest. The best among them, John Archer notes, “reconstruct” life as it was and discuss local society as part of the larger society of province and nation. Amateur historians need not fear their community's identity and importance will be lost in the broader setting, for every town and village has had unique experiences as well as ones similar to neighbouring communities. As David McDowell points out, local histories that consider the reader outside the community are those that gain the annual Margaret McWilliams Award for Manitoba’s best community study.

Many of the problems facing amateur historians stem from a lack of the skills and knowledge needed to write a full-scale history These abilities cannot be acquired overnight, and in an invaluable paper Gerald Friesen suggests there are less demanding and less costly ways of accomplishing the usual community goals of preserving the past and educating the next generation. He advises that newspaper articles, biographical dictionaries, slide presentations and other approaches can be just as effective. For those determined to attempt a book, he offers guidelines for a work that will have appeal beyond the boundaries of the community under study Amateur historians would be wise to heed his comments.

Sally Cunningham has aided the cause of Manitoba local history by preparing this book for publication. While its uneven quality reflects the state of the art, some of the papers do offer practical advice and others suggest alternatives that local historians may not have considered. This attempt to educate the novice is a praiseworthy first step in what will be a long journey.

Page revised: 19 May 2013

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