A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Summer 2017

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Writing Local History – Options for Publication and Dissemination

by Candace Brown

 

 

Note: This feature continues the theme of the article “A Closer Look at Home – Thoughts on Writing Local History” by Candace Brown, published in the winter issue of Neighborhood Life, an examination of the importance of writing about local history and what one author learned during his quest to do so. This time the focus is on “getting the word out.” We are pleased to announce that archived issues will soon be available.

The feature “A Closer Look at Home – Thoughts on Writing Local History,” described author Lawrence “Andy” Anderson’s several decades of research, photo collecting, and writing that finally resulted in his book, “In the Shadow of the Mountain. ” Many of us feel that same fascination with the past and some of us even want to write about it. But if a project the size of a book sounds too daunting, don’t despair. Other opportunities to tell the unique story of your town or neighborhood exist all around us, including some you might not have thought of, and they offer exciting ways to share that information.

Finding Paths to Publication

Drew Crooks turned a love of history into a career and found many places to publish his writing. He graduated with a Master of Arts degree in Museology from the University of Washington in 1981. He is the author of numerous articles and three books on history: A Centennial History of Westminster Presbyterian Church, Olympia, Washington (1994), Historical Resources and Bibliography of Lewis, Mason, and Thurston Counties, Washington, with Annamary Fitzgerald (1994) and Past Reflections: Essays on the Hudson’s Bay Company in the Southern Puget sound Region (2001). He also edited a book for the City of Olympia, in 2009, entitled Olympia, Washington: A People’s History.

“One way writers can be published is through local historical journals such as those distributed by museums,” Crooks said. “For example, I have enjoyed having articles published in Fort Nisqually Living History Museum’s Occurrences.” He also helped create a series of handouts for the Lacey Museum, in Lacey, Washington. Crooks stressed that the important thing to remember with handouts is accessibility, having them readily available at places where people can pick them up

“Unfortunately,” he said, “the changing nature of publishing means that some museums and historical societies are no longer producing paper periodicals or newsletters. Some are putting all the writing online, or just publishing less.”

However, even as some organizations might be cutting back, other opportunities arise. Take www.HistoryLink.org for example, an online encyclopedia of Washington State History, the first of its kind in the nation. It began in 1998 and continues to evolve. Regular updates have expanded its database from one focused on Seattle and King County in the beginning, to the multi-layered resource it is today, covering the entire state. In contrast to some popular online encyclopedias, HistoryLink is considered a reliable source for students to cite in their research papers. On a page called “What Educators Are Saying” you can read numerous testimonials from teachers who rave about this free resource and what it means to their students. In January of 2010 the website launched an exciting new Education Resource section, packed with valuable information and tools for students and educators both, such as study aids, curriculum, field trips, how to find primary sources, professional development and recognition, funding opportunities and more. They also sponsor a History Day in schools.

This well-earned respect results from strict standards for accuracy. “At HistoryLink,” said Senior Editor Priscilla Long, “sources are paramount.” In addition to being a widely published author and teacher of writing, with many honors and affiliations, Long has been involved with HistoryLink.org from the beginning. She served as its first editor, and the only one for many years. Any writer of local history who hopes to be published there needs to know how to cite sources properly, along with the specific needs and style of this encyclopedia. But perseverance and patience can pay off.

“Some of our writers have a Ph.D. in history and others are very experienced journalists, but it is also true that some of our best writers came to us by volunteering an essay," said Long. “If we see a writer we want we will take the time to work with them.” Although HistoryLink is one of the few such websites that pays its writers, Long pointed out that many people who now work as staff writers came to them first as volunteers. “In general, I would suggest offering to volunteer for a venue and then making the piece exactly what they want.” The section called ‘People’s Histories’ is a good place to start.

Local newspapers are another way to bring history to the public. For 32 years David Dilgard has worked as a specialist in regional history in the Northwest Room at the Everett Public Library in Everett, Washington, and is the author of several books. But it was through a newspaper, nearly 40 years ago, that Dilgard first ventured into writing local history.

“After months of research I sold a series of pieces on early local theater history to the Saturday supplement editor of the local daily newspaper,” he said. “This didn't pay much but it provided some exposure for the material, which slowly grew into a book I published through the library in 2001.” His book, Mill Town Footlights: the Theaters of Everett, Washington was released that year.

Dilgard’s other books include Buildings of Early Everett (1975), A Bi-Centennial Survey of Historic Properties (1976), The Everett Theatre: A Brief History of Its 90 Years (1991) and Dark Deeds (1991), about three famous homicides that happened in Snohomish County back when Washington was still a territory. He also co-edited The Journal of Everett & Snohomish County History, published by the library for most of the decade of the 1980s, professionally printed and available by subscription. He found himself doing not only writing, but editing, layout, and design, as well.

“Although it was originally intended as an outlet for worthwhile historical writings by others, two of us wound up doing almost all the writing as well,” Dilgard said. “While initially satisfying and well-received, it proved impossible to sustain. We were also maintaining a fifty-program-a-year speaking schedule as well as staffing the Northwest Room at the time.”


Consider other possibilities; history doesn’t always take place on land

After years as a freelance journalist, Joe Follansbee has published several non-fiction books and countless articles. His book Shipbuilders, Sea Captains, and Fishermen: the Story of the Schooner Wawona (2006) came from his passion for maritime history, the same passion driving his latest website project, called Fyddeye, with its slogan “Discover and Share Your Maritime History.” Here maritime history enthusiasts around the world stay up-to-date and in touch. Follansbee’s involvement with other historical organizations includes the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition Centennial, the Maritime Heritage Network, and more, as well as the Association of King county Historical Organizations, where he is president of the board.

“People tend to focus on large institutions, such as regional museums,” he said. “But most established small towns and cities, and many neighborhoods in large cities, have their own lesser-known institutions.” Follansbee lives in West Seattle, home of the Log House Museum. “The Log House Museum preserves the history of my neighborhood. Furthermore, the museum publishes a quarterly newsletter, and they are anxious to get new material.” He suggests that if you’ve researched the history of your neighborhood, “or even your block” and have written about it, you should contact a local museum to see if they would publish an article.

“Many of these newsletters are also published in an email version, or on a blog maintained by the museum, a local historical society, or an association,” Follansbee said. “One example is the Heritage Advisor, published by the Association of King County Historical Organizations.” Their website lists over 200 such organizations and “the editor is always interested articles about the history-related activities of members.”

“Looking a little more broadly,” Follansbee said, “there are a few specialist magazines that focus on history, though most are looking for stories with a national ‘footprint’ to appeal to a broad audience. The one exception to this rule is interesting news about threats to local history.

“In my own case, I was able to publish articles about dangers to Seattle’s maritime history in national publications a few years ago. Today, as editor of Fyddeye, I’m soliciting articles about threats to local maritime history, even though I’m serving a national/international audience.”

Follansbee offered an example: “If you know of a lighthouse that’s deteriorating because of poor maintenance, and that there’s a group of enthusiasts working to save the lighthouse, I’d welcome an article on your work.” His concern extends to ships, historic buildings, and local museums as well. “In addition, I’ve included a special area in Fyddeye called ‘Throw a Lifeline!’ where we publish action alerts on immediate threats to our maritime heritage.”

The rewards

Publication can be financially rewarding, especially with books, and articles in certain magazine and web venues, but not always. Those who choose to self-publish their books or work with companies offering publication under conditions most advantageous to the publisher need to take a careful look at contracts and think it through. In the case of articles, online or in print, payment varies widely, if it exists at all. Sometimes writing as a volunteer in the beginning, as suggested by Long, leads to paying jobs later on.

Paid or not, the dissemination of local history offers its own rewards, and sometimes doesn’t even include publication. Crooks said, “One way is presentation, doing public programs in schools, for community groups, and for historical organizations. The nice thing that happens is a give and take with audiences. I always find I end up learning new things myself, by hearing what people have to say.”

Dilgard experiences serendipity too. “The first book publication I did was an illustrated survey of the first buildings put up in Everett during the initial 1891-94 boom. I had access to my father's offset press and with his help, and an instruction manual, I learned enough about printing and plate-making to produce the book myself.

“Some of the buildings covered in the book were endangered or under-appreciated at the time, but subsequently several of them wound up on the State and/or National Registers as landmarks. When all was said and done, I didn't make much money on it, but it got information into the hands of the public in a timely fashion.”

Dilgard has done numerous presentations, tours of historic sites, and radio and television appearances. In 2009 he received an Award for Outstanding Achievement from the Washington State Historic Preservation Office, for a tour of the historic Evergreen Cemetery posted as a pod cast on the Everett Library’s website, dissemination through the latest technology. In the same year, the Washington State Historical Society presented the Robert Gray Medal to Dilgard, and co-worker Margaret Riddle, for collecting oral histories, a project that led to his career with the Everett Library.

Dilgard finds great satisfaction in writing local history. “In the old days,” he remarked, “a popular saying among photographers was to ‘Secure the image before the substance fades.’ Local history is the real substance of human existence. It enhances your relationship with place.”

Follansbee’s writing and involvement in various historical organizations surely rewards him on many levels, and aids the causes of preservation and education. In the case of his website Fyddeye, specifically, the connections he makes between people all over the world who share his interest in maritime history, and the way he increases awareness of ships, lighthouses and buildings at risk, all show tangible results: pieces of our past, saved for the future. He’s making a difference and that has to feel good.

Helpful suggestions and inspiring thoughts

Crooks offers some practical advice:

“You need to have a good working relationship with the host publication and understand that your work might be edited. But in the case of editing of your writing, I say to them that if they want to make any changes I would like to see what they are, before it goes to print.”

“You need to know from the beginning, the exact word count and exactly what they’re looking for. If you are writing for a museum, for example, what are their intentions? Are they trying to highlight a local landmark, or paint a picture of how life was in that town 50 years ago?”

“Do something different. Find a new way of looking at local history, using a fresh approach that makes it more interesting to people. You don’t have to just rehash the same old narratives.”

On the decision to write for historical societies, Crooks said: “It depends on whether or not you want to be paid. Some have a budget and some don’t. If they do, approach it just as you would any other publication, by querying and offering examples of your writing so they can be sure you write well and have a thorough knowledge of your subject.”

Whenever possible use primary sources such as personal interviews, journals, letters, and other documents. “Newspapers can be excellent sources, especially for more recent history, but if you would like to write about, say, the early days of the Hudson’s Bay Company you’d have to rely on things like correspondence and journals.”

Church histories provide a wealth of interesting material:
“A congregation’s history might go back over a long period of time. It can contain a wealth of carefully kept records, photos, and illustrations, reflecting the changes not only in church practices over the years, but also transformations in the larger society. A church’s history is a real ‘people’s history.’ It shows us a picture of that congregation, as a whole living community of people, through time.”

Regardless of how writers end up sharing their thoughts with others, it’s all part of a joyful process to those of us who love history. It’s also an expression of the responsibility we take seriously: our duty to future generations. But while disseminating all that information we must strive to make it as engaging as possible. If we can’t captivate people and make them care, it’s all at risk.

“I believe that history is really fascinating,” said Crooks, “and that all parts of history are equally important, whether it’s the history of Native Americans in pre-contact times, or the Vietnam war era. For example, with school children, it doesn’t always have to be about pioneer days. Sometimes the most interesting history to them is what happened 40 or 50 years ago. I think it’s really crucial, especially right now in an age when the past is often discounted, to convey history in a way that is relevant to young people, to people of all ages.

“Though the circumstances may change, we often face the same challenges that our ancestors encountered. Perhaps we can learn from how our ancestors dealt with issues that still affect us today. There is always something new you can learn.”

 

 

 

Links:

www.historylink.org Historylink

www.epls.org Everett Public Library

www.dahp.wa.gov Washington State Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation

www.preservationnation.org National Trust for Historic Preservation

www.fyddeye.com Fyddeye

www.historicalseaport.org Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority

www.fortnisqually.org Fort Nisqually

www.wshs.org Washington State Historical Museum

www.loghousemuseum.info Log House Museum

© Candace J. Brown 2010

 

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