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Local Histories

Overview

In the late 1800's many states, regions, and counties in the United States published local histories. These volumes usually contain chapters on the natural history of the county, early settlements, descriptions of towns, townships and local institutions and biographies of some of the inhabitants. The biographies included in the local histories are typically limited to people who paid to be included.

Local histories are useful for several reasons. First, the biographies often include information on the parents and origins of the featured person. Second, town or township histories provide summaries of the settlement of an area; where most of the people came from and how they arrived. Third, local histories are an easy way to look up information about the community, such as the existence of orphanages, newspapers, churches, hospitals, cemeteries, and businesses.

Local histories vary a lot in the amount and type of information they provide. Originally, most of them were only partially indexed (if they were indexed at all) but many have been reprinted with more complete indexes.

Search Strategies

There are many types of local histories. The most common ones are county level histories, but state, regional and town level histories are not uncommon and may include useful information.

Read more than just the biographies. Personal information can often be found in other portions of these books as well.

It is not unusual for the biographies in most local histories to include incorrect information. Many of these articles were written with an eye towards impressing one's neighbors and consequently personal or family achievements are often exaggerated.

Remember that local histories are secondary sources and must be checked against primary documents.

What the Society Owns

The Wisconsin Historical Society Library has a large collection of local histories for both Wisconsin and for the rest of the United States and Canada in the Library's open stacks and on microfilm. Local histories can be found in the Library Catalog (formerly MadCat) by searching for the county name and the state. For example: "Dane county" AND "Wisconsin". (Search terms such as "AND" need to be in all capitol letters and phrases such as "Dane county" need to be in quotation marks.)

The Archives also has an online catalog called ArCat. Although the Archives does not hold published local histories, they may have unpublished local histories in a manuscript format. Search ArCat using the same search terms as you would use for MadCat. 

How to Access These Records at the Society

If you plan to visit the Library, search the Library Catalog (formerly MadCat) for the call numbers and the locations of the local histories in which you are interested. By preparing in this manner, you will be able to make the most of your time at the Library.

Local histories generally do not circulate outside of the Library although we do have duplicate circulating copies of a few Wisconsin local histories on microfilm. These circulating items are listed in the Library Catalog (formerly MadCat).

If you cannot come to the Library and if you have the title, author, and page numbers from a local history from which you would like photocopies, you may request them by mail. If you do not have a page number, but would like us to check a particular local history for a person or family and make copies of the information, you should consult Requesting Research Assistance. Unfortunately, we cannot make copies of entire publications. 

For further information, please visit Library Services.

If you plan to visit the Archives, search the online catalog, ArCat, for the call numbers and the locations of the local histories in which you are interested. By preparing in this manner, you will be able to make the most of your time at the Archives.

If you cannot visit the Archives and the material you wish to use is on microfilm, it may be available via interlibrary loan. Please contact the Archives Reference Staff for more information. If the material is not available on microfilm, you will need to make a reference request to the Archives.

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