One reason Louisville is a great place for public history is the number of active organizations with a vested interest in local history. Yesterday I attended a Louisville Historical League workshop that reminded me of this. The League dates to 1972. It maintains an active schedule of public programs and field trips. With over 600 members, it one of the largest organizations of its kind in the Ohio River Valley.
The League is mainly devoted to promoting the study and appreciation of local history. But it’s also somewhat unique, in that its members take frequent field trips to historic places and are actively engaged in preserving historical materials. I find it to be one of the most interesting organizations that I’ve encountered. Its members are dedicated, thoughtful, and knowledgeable, and its lectures series is first-rate. I’m always impressed by the speakers they bring to Louisville and the topics they explore.
Yesterday’s session focused on research: how and where to do it. Several archivists from local institutions spoke about their collections and procedures for using them. Then, a panel of experienced researchers talked about what they do and recommended strategies for investigating particular subjects. Joe Hardesty of the Louisville Free Public Library, Jim Holmberg of the Filson Historical Society, and Tom Owen of the University of Louisville Archives and Records Center all spoke during the first session. The following panel was formed of Joanne Weeter, Stefanie Buzan, Rosemary McCandless, Deborah Lord Campisano, Gary Falk, and Rick Bell.
Hearing the various presenters talk reminded me of two things. One is the richness of historical materials here in Louisville. The Filson, the Free Public Library, and the U of L all have extraordinary collections. Their holdings include manuscripts and published materials, oral histories, historical maps, architectural drawings, and and newspaper clipping files. Each is easy to use and very accommodating of researchers. It’s also noteworthy that these three institutions are only part of what’s available in the Louisville area. The Louisville Metro Archives, the American Printing House for the Blind, and National Library of the Sons of the American Revolution also maintain very strong collections. In short, Louisville has a surfeit of great collections — and great archivists. Every city should be so fortunate.
The other subject I found myself thinking about is the multiplicity of historical knowledge. Interest in the past takes many forms, and so does knowledge about it. As academics, it’s easy to become solely focused on scholarly debate and historiography. But this is only one mode of inquiry into past eras — and one mode of sharing information about the past. The Louisville Historical League is representative of a much broader range of public engagement with history. Its members are genealogists, neighborhood historians, students of niche subjects, and enthusiasts. Some of them are serious scholars, while others are hobbyists. Regardless, all are interested and invested in studying the past and sharing information about it. As a group, they underscore the multiple forms in which historical knowledge comes and the many different modes in which it is disseminated.
So, the next time you have a few minutes to spare, take a minute to check out the League’s website. It’s a good introduction to the organization and what they do. And it’s a good way to become familiar with happenings that make Louisville a great place for doing history of almost any kind. Few communities have as strong a network of historical organizations and institutions.
— Daniel Vivian
For more information about yesterday’s session, take a look at Discover Louisville History. Below is a photo of yesterday’s panel on researching local history.