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I have proposed to my board that we prepare a “History of Pope County” book for publication in 2016, our 150th year. I want to know what my colleagues think regarding portions of past county history books that were successful, most used, least important, should never be repeated, etc., as we launch into our book. Pope County does not have a good history book. Thanks,

Merlin Peterson,
Pope County Historical Society

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11 Responses to What makes a good history book?

  1. Mary Warner says:

    First and foremost, I’d suggest that you be sure to document all of your sources. (But, then, you knew that, didn’t you?) We have one county history book that is terribly inaccurate in some places, but you don’t know which places at first glance. There are no sources cited, so there’s no going back to double check. A thorough index is also critical, especially if you are attempting to produce a book you want to use as reference far into the future.


  2. Marci Matson says:

    I completely agree with Mary about the importance of an index and citing of sources. I rely on one of our history books with a comprehensive index and source list when I am doing research. We have a second beautiful book with lots of photos without an index/source list, that the public loves and buys but doesn’t serve researchers as well. I would really like to have a book with both strengths.

    I also wish that the photos were listed with their accession numbers. So many people ask for a copy of the photo "on page 75". A number would make look up so much easier (especially since we don’t have everything catalogued in PastPerfect). I’ve seen this done in other books.

    As an aside, if (when) you find errors after the book is published, make sure you note them in a file that you can easily refer to later. It helps you and others from perpetrating the myths/errors.


    Deborah Morse-Kahn reply on February 13th, 2008:

    As a necessary addendum to Marci Mattson’s posting on the Edina history books, it is important to know the “history of the history book” call Edina: Chapters in the City History.

    We were given less than six months to meet a deadline of a long-standing city employee’s retirement. We met that almost impossible deadline but there was no opportunity to create an index; also, many of the photographs used in the book did not come for the EHS collections but rather were borrowed, culled from city records, or donated outright for the event of this book. These images, which may have comprised almost 1/3 of all images in this beautiful book, were catalogued after the fact.

    I, too, would like an index for ‘Edina’ but, while complaints about the lack of index for this 1998 publication have circulated for the decade of its existence (still one of the most frequently requested localy history studies in the Hennepin County library system), I can’t help but notice that no one has offered to take up the task to create an addendum index and offer it as available with all copies purchased. 🙂



  3. Annette Atkins says:

    I’d encourage you to resist the temptation to focus overly on what makes a place unique, special, exceptional and encourage you instead to look for connections and commonalities. A county history can be the story of one place, but it can also be the story of one place as a part of a bigger world. One can then talk about how events outside of the place shape the life instead as well as about people having connections, interests, family, concerns both inside and outside the place. Few people then or now are only part of one place, but participate in the life of the nation, the state, the home country, the national organization, the international church, etc.

    It’s also important, I think, to keep in mind the extent to which good history is made up of good stories, well told, rather than lots of information, carefully arranged.


    Joe Hoover reply on February 11th, 2008:

    I agree with Annette. Look for connections and what ties your place to the larger world and the events in it. Community histories in the U.S. are like snowflakes, similar structures but each one is unique.


  4. Debbie Miller says:

    Hi Merlin,

    A couple of suggestions for your new history book: you and other interested people might take a look at Joseph Amato’s book, Rethinking Home: A Case for Writing Local History to see whether any of his ideas would work in a Pope County history.

    Also, if you know of people in Pope County or elsewhere who have done work on some aspect of Pope County history, think about how to draw on that work in your new history. A couple of Pope County examples: Kathryn Dudley from the Yale University American Studies program conducted oral history interviews in the county and wrote a book called Debt and dispossession : farm loss in Americas heartland, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2000.

    A researcher from Norway, Terje Hasle Joranger, has studied Pope County Norwegian Americans from one place in Norway for his dissertation, which I think will be finished soon. Let me know if you need contact information for either researcher.

    Debbie Miller
    Minnesota Historical Society


  5. Claudia Nicholson says:

    Merlin: I think that your biggest challenge is going to be financing. As others have noted, county history books vary in their usability. It is my observation that the ones that work least well are the "vanity" publications, where businesses and families pay to have their "histories" listed. These books are disjointed, spotty, incomplete, and uselessly sourced.

    I’d search, first, for a donor (or group of donors) who might be willing to fund a county history "project". That way, you get new, original research paid for, as well as the writing. If the book is written well enough, and is engaging enough, you may find a publisher who picks up your production costs. You want the book to be interesting to county folk (and, or course, saleable to them), but you also want it to be disseminated more widely.

    The additional advantage of doing a full-blown "project" is that you’ll get lots of material that you can use in other ways. Since an anniversary is coming up anyway, this helps you with anniversary exhibits, programs, and other small projects (historical driving tours of the county and such). If someone just wants to fund the book–great, but you might find it an easier sell as a larger project.

    I’m facing this with the Boy Scout and Girl Scout centennials coming up very soon. It’s hard to move people off the book idea and get them to think a little bigger, but I believe that everyone will be more satisfied with the end result(s) than if you just focus on the book.

    Good luck!


  6. Greg Britton says:

    I think there are two issues here

    The first is raised by your question and is nicely answered by the comments. A good history book is accurate and thoroughly documented and engagingly written. It takes the specific and connects it to the general. It passes the so what? testor as a colleague of mine puts it, you can answer the question who really needs this book? without thinking too hard.

    The second question begged by the first is what makes a well-published book. To that I would say, a book successfully published is one that finds its audience. Anyone considering publishing a history book needs to think about who the readers really arenot who we might think they areand then works to reach those readers. I see a lot of books turned out with little thought about who really needs or wants them.

    Publishing really divides into two equal tasks. One is producing the book. The second and equally important job of a publisher is getting the book into the hands of readers. Many small publishers focus all their energy and limited resources on the first part of that equation and ignore the second half.

    Greg Britton
    Minnesota Historical Society Press & Borealis Books


  7. Deborah Morse-Kahn says:

    I thought Merlin’s questions was a very timely one, as I have been aware of several county and regional studies now under consideration and discussion.

    First, Marci Mattson (Edina Historical Society) is absolutely right about the need to include an index and locatoring information for photographic and cartographic images in a book of this kind. Unfortunately, for the book she is referencing-Edina: Chapters in the City History–we were up against an almost impossible deadline of five months from concept to loading dock, and so sacrificed the index for the sake of truly beautiful book. Also, many images came in from other collections or from individuals: we credited where possible, knowing that the accession process, bringing the images into the EHS collections, would come afterwards. As always, an errata list is essential–the wrong street name, the wrong date, a misidentified photo. Its the way of the local history world.

    Some quick thoughts on book production: the astonishing rise of the Arcadia series on local history shows up the great need for a good "packaged" approach to getting material such as a county history into print. Unfortunately, too many of the MN and WI samples I have seen are heavily weighted towards society ("founder") names, run-on captioning and (in a few instances) the author’s family! 🙂

    Alternatively, as Claudia said so well, the "vanity" presses that are now specializing in large-format hardcover county histories are also a factory production, offering little in the way of help beyond secure numbers for cost and delivery.

    Both types of publications seem, in my mind, to end up as glorified photo albums. I agree with Claudia that the effort is entirely worth the excellent result if time and care are put into this effort: finding a team of folks who write well (its a county, not a town, they’re out there!) and know an important corner of the county territory is half the battle. Controlling costs is a real issue but money should not, I feel, be driving a county history: this is for the next generations.

    I want to tag onto Annette’s excellent point that, in this 21st century time of historiography, public history has happily replaced the story of the few. The Edina book was one of the first efforts to write a truly community story: few were extolled individually unless their efforts resulted in effect well beyond the village borders. Having National Grange founders in Edina Mills didn’t hurt! 🙂

    But, more than this, I must (gently) remind us all that our story begins well before our collective European arrival on this land, and that the ground under our feet is also part of that early story. Those who came before us–our First Nations peoples–and the topography and geology of the land itself–have their own essential stories, and lead into the contact and post-contact story of European settlement. This does not always "go down well" with folks I am asked to consult with on publication development of this kind: to many, the story begins with the building of the first church (school, town hall, mill). But truly, individuals in time, and place, make decisions individually and collectively on how to live amongst each other, and how to best exploit the natural resources around them. This is as true for pre-contact peoples as it was later true for those who took first claim on the lands taken from First Nation peoples, and any history without this early chapter must be incomplete.

    Finally, a vote for one of my very favorite books, Margo Fortunato Galt’s essential "The Story in History: Writing Your Way into the American Experience" was first published in 1992 at the very beginning of the tide turning historiography to the question "Whose story are you writing?" The rise of Public History as a critical factor in Cultural Resource Management and the generation of regional histories in the decades that followed can be traced back to this work. Dr. Galt still serves as faculty for Hamline University and also as an advisor to the Minnesota State Arts Board. She’s very approachable! This particular book is no longer in print but can be found in almost every public library collection and in many used (antiquarian) bookshops. Check online, too…



  8. Tim Glines, Minnesota Historical Society says:

    Some contributors to this discussion have mentioned the important management titles that help us do our work. Others have called attention to works of history, and that reminded me of some of the outstanding local histories Ive read. Many do not deal with Minnesota or even U.S. history, but they all illustrate how local history can tell a larger story.
    Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error by Emmanuel Ladurie, New York: G. Braziller, 1978.
    Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village by Ronald Blythe, New York: Dell, 1969.
    What This Awl Means: Feminist Archaeology at a Wahpeton Dakota Village by Janet D. Spector, St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1993.
    The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983.
    A Midwifes Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, New York: Random House, 1991.


  9. Cathy Walters says:

    Greg, you are so right on first nation.Before there was an Elgin,MN- it was someone elses land.Mr.Rollings Diary,he stated when he 1st settled here that he found out he was on what they called THE HALF BREED TRACT so he moved .The land he had been on soon became opened.I dont know the dealings that made it opened and many here dont know the history before the whitemen from out east that settled here.


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