Sometimes I wonder why I spend so much time researching local history. I enjoy doing the research, but does it really matter? Does our local historical society have a role to play in Portsmouth culture? I am going to share some of my personal struggles with these questions.

Does local history matter? When I was a college history major there was a new wave of interest. Historians had been placing a great deal of emphasis on political and economic history. Wars, explorations, nation building, etc. had been the dominating topics for historians. In the 1960s there began to be more interest in social history, how people actually lived. This is what interested me. What was daily life like in families, in the workplace, in the schools, in local organizations? These are the topics that a local historian and local history museum can share with our town.

Does our local historical society have a role to play in Portsmouth culture? Some people may see the collection of the historical society as “grandma’s attic.” I see it as a touch stone to the past. As a historian I value “primary sources” – the photos, documents, diaries, maps and objects that were created at a past time. A local history collection is meant to visually illustrate the past. What did people wear? What tools did they use? How did they cook? The objects lead us to a story and those stories from the past help us to understand our common heritage as people of Portsmouth. Our horse drawn hearse, for example, led us to stories about the town coroner and his role in town. As we tried to understand its ornamentation, it lead us to research how people mourned in the past. As people we have so much in common with those our ancestors. We struggle with the same core human issues. These stories can actually unite us in a time when there is much that divides us.

So why am I struggling with these questions? I always wonder about how I spend my time so that will be a continuing question for me. I struggle with the questions about the historical museum because I hear too many voices who don’t value what a small town history collection can provide for a town. Perhaps I am too old fashioned – just like the history collection that inspires me as a local historian.