Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Local history research

I have had a lifelong fascination with reference books.  From an early age these compendiums of facts and figures fascinated me.  Haydn’s Dictionary of dates was one such book and although last published in the late 19th Century it was commonly available in many public and school libraries in the 1950’s.  The dictionary had particularly grandiose titles.  The 1881 edition enjoyed the title “Haydn’s dictionary of dates and useful information relating to all ages and nations containing the history of the world to the Autumn of 1881”.  Not many publications would make such claims today!

As a young historian first dabbling in history of his hometown, books such as Michael Kavanagh’s Bibliography of County Kildare were an invaluable resource as I worked my way through the records in the National Library in Dublin in the early 1970’s.  When I first began working on Athy’s history the immediate difficulty I faced was trying to identify where I could extract information relevant to this history of the town.  Michael Kavanagh’s book was a great starting point as it identified all publications in both books or periodicals relating to the County of Kildare and thanks to Michael’s meticulous research I was able to extract much information on the town.

For an amateur researcher such as myself there was quite a great deal of trial and error, sometimes chasing a reference down a blind alleyway, but invariable there was always the joy of finding some nugget of information long forgotten about the town.  I can recall long hours in the reading room of the National Library hunched over the microfiche readers while I carefully read through old issues of the Nationalist!

What I didn’t truly appreciate and only really did when my family and I moved to Athy in 1982 was that much information still remained within the living memory of the inhabitants of the town.  Sometimes there was a story retold from father to son or perhaps a document preserved carefully in the family’s possession but all this information has gradually informed my writings and research into the town’s history over the last 40 years.

There is no doubt that the advent of the internet has allowed local history studies to blossom in a way that I could not have foreseen more than 40 years ago.  The modern researcher can access census records, valuation office records, army records at the touch of a button.  The recent release from the military archives of the records of those who served in the War of Independence has been an absolute boon, not only for professional historians, but for the families who now have a greater sense of what their grandparents and great grandparents did more than a century ago.

At the same time this commitment to the digitisation of our records has its downside.  The accessibility of the internet also makes it very ephemeral.   How many of us have gone on holidays with a digital camera, taken a multitude of photographs and have yet to print one off? How often have we viewed a picture in a family album of relations long dead and now unknown to us for the sake of a label?  This is something we must bear in mind for future generations.  I am aware that the National Library has a policy of “harvesting” websites to be stored digitally but like all technology time overtakes it and there is always a fear that the technology of today will not be recognised by the technology of tomorrow and these records may no longer be accessible to us. 

With the introduction of the e-book many years ago, we were led to believe that it sounded the death knell for the printed book, but I am confident that the dictionaries, anthologies, bibliographies and encyclopaedias which grace my shelves and punctuate my research will assist me in many years to come.    

Few communities are as fortunate as we are in having a full time museum in our town which has been assiduous over the last 20 years in collecting and recording the town’s historical development.  It is something that is very easy to take for granted but it is important that we continue to support the museum.  I am often surprised that the first time many of our towns inhabitants cross the threshold of the museum is when they are showing it to a friend or relation from abroad.  It is an important resource that we must not neglect and I would encourage both young and old to use the museum as often as possible.  The museum’s latest exhibition “By Endurance We Conquer – Shackleton’s Men” will be opened at 2.30pm on the 30th of August next, just after the unveiling of the statue of Ernest Shackleton at Emily Square, Athy.  All are welcome to attend.

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