How to do local history

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Sharing local history is easy. And there’s so much free content available. Just Google…

When I started this blog, I had no idea how little I actually knew about local history, just what a huge subject it was, and how much work was involved. Indeed, back in April, 2009 I had no idea that a huge part of this shambling edifice would be local history at all.

Since I’ve been doing this – learning all the time – there’s been an exponential rise in the use of social media, something which has made local history easier in many ways, but more complex in others. It’s now easy to get folk talking together who wouldn’t otherwise have been in contact. It’s now a breeze to bring up a topic and discuss it in the open, to challenge misconceptions and explore what is and isn’t known.

Social media makes both the propagation of myth, and the countenance of it much easier.


Brownhills, apparently. See text for accreditation.

One of the worrying trends I’ve noticed of late is what I’d term the ‘magpie tendency’, which is most easily enabled by Facebook. Facebook enables anyone to set up a page or a group, then hoover images and content off the web into it. Discussions easily take place on the content posted. Most often these images are stolen, without link or accreditation to those to whom they belong. There is no research, and often, the conversations that arise are utterly incorrect.

The phenomena isn’t just limited to historical stuff: there’s a site for Burntwood that just cuts and pastes local news stories on a daily basis from other websites. When challenged, they started adding links to the source. Before that, they pretended the content was theirs. This is theft, pure and simple.

These groups are popular, because participation is easy, and inconsequential. They steal material – often, quite innocently – from any number of sources, then when challenged, just hold their hands up and shrug. Many of the participants think that because something is online, it’s free to take.

I’ve covered this before, and feel no less annoyed by the practice.

Since the original Brownhills group was taken down after complaints that it was posting content from Walsall Local History Centre without accreditation – another, somewhat half-hearted group sprang up, mainly fuelled by scans from local history books. I have no objection personally, I’ve featured many such images myself, but always, always with accreditation. I will take great pains to promote authors and content providers and advertise them wherever possible. This site is about discussion, exploration and promotion of the great work that’s going on and been undertaken.

Last Friday – the curator of ‘Brownhills – The Good Old Days‘ decided it was time for a new image. They hit Google image search and banged in ‘Brownhills Canal’. The first hit was a lovely image, so they stole it and posted it up.

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Posted in ‘Brownhills – The Good Old Days’ on Facebook, last Friday, about 5pm. Removed an hour later.

The screen shot is self-explanatory. The image the magpies had found was of Brownhills, near Longport, in the Potteries. Brownhills is not a unique name, and crops up a lot in history searches, as it has a notable High School and pottery, which is quite collectable.

The image is lovely, but had the thieves clicked through for just a second, they’d have found it was from the wonderful website, and was not of our area at all. It seems that, to these new propagators of local history, clicking on the image link they’re pilfering is too much like hard work. Just steal it and post it. Job done.

To anyone who knows our Brownhills, t’s fairly clear that the image isn’t of our town. However, the poster saw a canal, a horse, some old buildings. That’s all local history is, isn’t it?

I know recently Barry Carpenter, Stuart Williams, Walsall1955 and other local history folks have had their work lifted in this way. All we want, generally, is a link back, and an explanation of context. It’s basic manners. We want history to be out there, explored and talked about. Just take five minutes to think it through and credit your sources.

Some groups do it well. Dave Gallagher’s ‘You’re probably from Lichfield if…‘ have worked hard to build a community that’s respectful and exploratory. The Aldridge group has tended toward more user provided content, but still posts stolen material.

Come on folks. Local history is important, and it’s important that it’s done right. When it’s done right, it’s hard work. I don’t get it right most of the time. But the discussion is there. Please show a little respect to those doing the tiresome research stuff, and credit and investigate what you’re pilfering.

It’s only manners, after all, and could prevent you looking like a total idiot.

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12 Responses to How to do local history

  1. Graeme Fisher says:

    Any form of local or historical website is plagued by thieves and plagarists, unfortunately.

    I regularly use other people’s work, but with permission, and am happy for others to use mine with a credit.

    What the magpies fail to do is the hours of research behind the scenes, reading, checking, cross-referencing, collaborating… The stuff that means what you publish is 99% right, accurate, true. The hours that create a breakthrough or a link, the critical piece of the jigsaw that ties events together.

    Pasting images and bits of text together without understanding how they interrelate is pointless. It’s no more than primary school collage.

  2. Barry Carpenter says:

    Too true, I’ve have a couple of my images hijacked, people just think they can do this with out permission then get up set when you challenge them! They have even re-edited them to suit their needs, bang out of order or whay!

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  4. Many thanks for highlighting this issue. I have been writing about Kent’s local history for the past five years and am always surprised, and annoyed, to see images and text ‘borrowed’ without acknowledgement or permission. It only takes a few minutes to check a link and fire off an email asking for permission and I haven’t been refused yet!

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