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Digging up local history offers insights to the present

''You cannot possibly understand the present unless you also understand the future,'' says Myron Marty, co-author of a how-to book called ''Nearby History, '' designed to help local, would-be historians ''gain a sense that one is part of something larger and more lasting than the moment, something that stretches both backward and forward in time,'' he writes.

Local historians, says Dr. Marty, an assistant director at the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington, D.C., tend to be very good at particulars, while academic historians see ''the big-picture history'' - history's broad movements. That's why he and co-author David Kyvig, a history professor at the University of Akron in Ohio, included a chapter on ''linking the particular and the universal'' to help the book's readers fit their findings into the mainstream of history.

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Such findings, says Dr. Marty, who taught courses on local and family history at St. Louis Community College in Missouri, can be triggered by nearly anything. ''I had a student who'd found (an unusual) clock in his attic.'' After some poking around, the student discovered that the clock had been owned by his great-aunt.

The student found out where his aunt was buried, and discovered the groundskeeper had a copy of her obituary. That led him to people and organizations who had known her, and resulted in a fine bit of family history.

But families are not the only topics of interest to the nearby historian, Dr. Marty points out. ''I had students doing everything from a history of the local Armenian community to a history of bagels in St. Louis,'' he says with a smile.

If the smile on this round-faced, pink-cheeked man seems familiar to his readers, it's probably because of the many Marty family pictures Dr. Marty has managed to slip into his books. Digging out illustrations was one of the last tasks taken on by the historian, who started work on this project in 1975, when a publisher introduced him to Dr. Kyvig.

''David and I had a preliminary meeting to look over the prospectus both of us had written,'' says Dr. Marty, ''and at the end, I asked him, 'How do I know you can write?' He told me, 'I was just wondering the same thing about you.' ''

They then discovered that each was in the middle of reading the same book on writing - Jacques Barzun's ''Simple and Direct.'' That began a fruitful collaboration that has produced two books and a paper, and is scheduled to produce a series on historical topics sometime in the future.

''I could never have finished this project on my own,'' says Dr. Marty, who went through several publishers and drafts before coming out with his book. ''But it seemed like just when I was ready to quit, I'd get two chapters in the mail from David, and just when he was at a low point, I'd get going on the project. We spurred each other on.''

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Together, they produced a step-by-step guide to discovering your own culture - a term they define as ''what you need to know to be one of the folk.'' Turning an historian's eye on artifacts, maps, county documents, minutes, photographs, and oral histories, the book gently guides the reader toward the three big goals of history writing - description of the past, measurement of change over time, and analysis of cause and consequence.

Once you get started on this project, the authors say, it's very common to find that your interests shift. What started as a history of dishes, for example , may become a family history, or a history of the kinds of social events the dishes were used for, or a history of the time in which they were made.

Digging for these histories may take you to:

* Published documents. In addition to books, articles, government documents, and newspapers, look for dissertations, posters, handbills, programs, commercial histories, directories, and maps. Check both the material and the prejudices of the recorder, Dr. Marty warns, and remember that published material isn't necessarily accurate material.

* Unpublished documents. Look for letters, journals, wills, ledgers, minutes of meetings, annual reports. Archives have some of these, but many are hiding in attics and backrooms, and need to be searched out.

* Visual documents. Photos, drawings, paintings, and movies are particularly good because they trigger memories.

* Artifacts. Try to find out their history, material, construction, design, and function.

* Buildings and landscapes. Check out maps, aerial photographs, deeds, and county or city records to see how the landscape changed. Examine buildings carefully, looking for signs of remodeling, trash pits in the backyard, layers of wallpaper, varied use.

Dr. Marty gives an example of how all these sources may work together from his own experience. He asked his church to designate him ''church archivist,'' a title that, he says, ''gave me access to all sorts of things I couldn't otherwise have laid my hands on.'' One of the first things he turned up was a collection of photographs - a collection with large gaps in it.

He went to the congregation for help, and plugged most of the holes with photographs they either gave to the church or loaned to him. Once the collection was in cohesive shape, he put together a slide show for the membership.

That started longtime members talking. Dr. Marty carefully took notes of what they said about the church, its neighbors, its congregations, its ministers, its quarrels and triumphs. Supplementing these oral histories with church minutes and records of baptisms, confirmations, and sermon topics, he had enough material to put together a comprehensive history of his church.

Having that sense of history helps congregations make decisions, Dr. Marty says. He notes the apocryphal story of the church membership that discovered it was always in debt when the church was in a time of great growth, and solvent when the membership seemed to be stagnating - a bit of history that spurred the congregation to take on a building project needed for the future.

Such understanding of the future, in Dr. Marty's view, lets you better understand the present.

''Nearby History'' is available from the American Association for State and Local History, 708 Berry Road, Nashville, Tenn. 37204. The price is $15.95, plus

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