5. Why Bristol? Why not Chicago?

360o Panoramic of Bristol circa 1968
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Photographs courtesy of John Sweet ©

Although the subject of this CD is Bristol, the approach adopted here is one which could be applied to any city, anywhere. Certainly, I hope it will be possible for urban historians to find here material which facilitates comparative analysis, be the focus of their research Bordeaux, Vancouver, Nairobi or Beijing.

Sometimes it is difficult to get over to students who have a keen interest in local history the importance of a comparative perspective. A single anecdote will demonstrate both this point and its significance. A very enthusiastic mature student, who had just completed an undergraduate history course, and whose life experiences in Bristol and long term interest in its local history gave him much greater knowledge of the city than I will ever have, approached me enquiring how to register for a higher degree. His research proposal was to investigate the growth of the city, housing density and the health of its poorer inhabitants.

I questioned the novelty of this topic; in relative terms, even for Bristol, a much under-researched city, this is not a neglected topic. I also suggested that this research agenda would require reading around the topic; the more general theories and investigations of urban development, which have been advanced by geographers, sociologists town planners and demographers, as well as historians, would be essential background material. The character of this discussion chilled a little at the mention of Leeds, Glasgow and Dublin but the temperature dropped dramatically when I suggested there was much of value to be learned from the patterns of development exhibited by certain north American cities. "Chicago!", was the sharp retort, "I don't want to know about Chicago. It's Bristol I'm interested in."

Chicago, however, is extraordinarily interesting for urban historians. And, at the time of this interview, I was deeply conscious that it had played an important inspirational role for the Bristol Historical Databases Project. Chicago had been the venue of one of the most significant moments in the history of the social sciences, and of sociology in particular, when it saw the coalescence of a project which took the city as its subject. Urban life in all its myriad forms and manifestations was to be examined to reveal both empirical data and theoretical propositions in an enterprise which would not only depend upon collaboration but thrive through collective endeavour. Beardsley Ruml, speaking in 1924 as director of the Local Community Research Committee, identified the objectives of the Chicago project:

The plan here was to bring together the research capacities of the university in economics, sociology, and political science and, in cooperation with public and private agencies of the city of Chicago, to undertake a systematic investigation of the Chicago community. It was felt that such a program would be beneficial both to the City and the University - that research and instruction in social sciences would flourish in the presence of opportunities for access to first-hand data and experience such as the City would provide - that the public and private agencies of the City would be aided in their programs for social betterment by the careful and impartial studies which the University would make. More fundamental, it is an experiment as to the possibility of a university assuming intellectual leadership based on scientific investigation in matters affecting the welfare of the community. [15]

This interview had a happy end. My interlocutor has continued his research with every intention of disseminating to local historicans his abundant knowledge of Bristol's historical sources. The academic study, which could have become an unenjoyable, if not a burdensome, millstone has been rejected. In this case, this was probably the optimal outcome. However, the story does raise a number of points. And perhaps the most important relates to the varied perceptions we hold of history as such; be that history as the past, history as a record of the past, history as the justifying myth which holds communities together, or keeps them apart, and history as a discipline.

Academic history, as written by university lecturers with their peers in mind, usually has a different aim and purpose from that written with lay audience of local historians in mind. It is necessary here, if only for the sake of exposition, to regard the latter the latter group as amateur historians. However, and I cannot stress this strongly enough, this nomenclature is intended neither to diminish the dedication and scholarly approach of many amateur historians. In the United Kingdom, for at least one more generation, the ranks of the amateur historians continue to draw upon the fund of expertise accumulated by attendance at classes organised by Extra Mural and Adult Education Departments of British universities and the Workers Education Association (WEA). Special pleading though it may be, given the context, but one of the negative legacies of education policies adopted since 1979 has to be the contraction and marginalisation of this provision. Given the current rhetoric concerning the delivery of 'life-long learning' education, the sad truth is that the institutions long devoted to that objective have been neglected and allowed to wither on the vine. Nevertheless, this constituency still exists and the CD is produced for them, too.

There is another link to the CD here. In part, of course, the expanded provision of undergraduate education in the United Kingdom was the alternative response, and without the allocation of research funds to the 'new universities', previously designated Polytechnics, a significant portion of the innovative British-based research in the social sciences and humanities published recently would not have appeared. And of course, the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), an audit or domesday survey of publications enumerated by discipline and department, has acted as a spur to this development. The Bristol Historical Resource CD owes much to both for it existence.

It would also be a grave mistake to assume that the academic historian and the amateur local historian are different animals, inhabiting different worlds. Both are humans, and sometimes they are one and the same human. They also share the same habitat; both exist off the same resources. Moreover, even when they can be classified as two distinct types, they have much to offer each other. Amateur historians have eagerly trawled local record offices to the great benefit of professional historians. By turn, professional historians have not infrequently drawn to the attention of the lay local historian the comparative importance of aspects of a community which would otherwise go unremarked or be overlooked completely. Local historians have made their vital contribution unrolling parts of the tapestry which is Bristol's historical record and some have kindly contributed to this CD.