Historical research for heritage purposes
Finding out about heritage places
Everyone can be involved in historical research and finding out about heritage places. A good place to start is your local council library which may hold references or records on the place that you are investigating. The Mitchell Library at the State Library of NSW also has an extensive collection of historical material. Local records, oral histories, site investigations and family history are also potential sources of information.
While the Heritage Branch does not keep books or historical records about every heritage place in NSW, we can point you in the right direction. Download our guide to Historical research for heritage (research.pdf, 204KB) for tips about how to undertake your own investigation into the history of a place. The Heritage Branch Library also holds specialist resources on heritage topics.
What is history?
History is the study and interpretation of the past. A question is asked in the present-day about a place, person, event, process or other thing in the past, and a historian then undertakes research to establish a body of information which then has to be interpreted in order to answer the question. History is not just research to find or establish 'facts'. History can be presented as biography, chronicle, genealogy, military history, environmental history and many other forms. In heritage work it is typically presented as a report.
How is history used in heritage work?
History is used in heritage work in two main ways: to help identify historically significant items, and to help assess the historical significance of an item. Historical significance does not necessarily mean "old", although age can be a contributory factor. Nor does it simply mean that a well-known historical person once owned or used an item, although again this can contribute to a historical understanding. A professional historian with training and experience of working in the heritage field should be included in any team involved in identifying, assessing and developing management policies for a heritage study. These are commonly undertaken for a local council area or a government agency or a particular historical theme, or for individual heritage items.
How are historical items and historical significance identified and protected?
Historically significant items can be identified from an understanding of 'context' and 'association'.
Context refers to the historical influences which have shaped and continue to shape an item. In heritage work, these influences are referred to as 'themes'.
View the NSW and Australian Historical Themes (themes2006.pdf, 53KB)
A heritage item with historical significance should be able to show or demonstrate relevant themes in its physical fabric. This physical fabric can then be conserved in an appropriate way so that the historical context for an item is not lost.
Woman factory worker, Commonwealth Gas Meter Works, Redfern 1951(Photograph courtesy of Government Printing Office Collection, State Library of NSW) (State historic themes: Labour, Industry)
Demolition of working class timber housing in the Redfern/Waterloo area to make way for Housing Commission redevelopments, 1947(Photograph courtesy of Government Printing Office Collection, State Library of NSW) (State historic theme: Townships - urban planning)
Historians working in the heritage field can use images such as those above to explore generalisations such as 'women only worked in factories during the war' to predict that certain fabric such as women's rest rooms and creches may survive at an industrial site, and to identify industrial artefacts in a certain period.
Historians working in the heritage field need to understand the major historic influences that have shaped the State, such as the so-called 'slum clearances' of the early to mid-20th century.
Association refers to connections between an item and a historically significant person or group. A person must be shown to be significant in some context, and the contribution of the person or group to the significance of that item needs to be explained. This also applies to a group, which is broadly defined to include a family dynasty, an occupational grouping such as nurses or vignerons, legal groups such as convicts, or communal groups such as Chinese or Italian migrants. Associational significance can be protected by sensitive interpretation of an item in forms such as signs and plaques, publications, exhibitions and maintaining significant uses or forms of an item.
How can you be involved?
Everyone can become involved in historical research and in protecting the heritage of their local area. Community historians can be involved through membership of their local historical society or a heritage committee established by a local council, and by contributing to community debates about the significance of potential or listed heritage items. This is essential if historically significant places and artefacts are to be properly valued in the planning processes that operate at local council level. Developing heritage walking/driving tours of historically significant local sites, and contributing articles about places of historic significance to local newspapers and publications, play a valuable role in educating the broader community about significant local historic places.
Surveyor's Tree, Maryvale corner, Dorset Road, Kayuga, Muswellbrook Shire, markings inscribed c1950s. (State historic theme: Land tenure)
View from the platform of Gundagai Railway Station through the building towards the back (State historic themes: Transport, Government & Administration)
Historians working in the heritage field need to be able to read elements of the physical environment as they would read paper documents.
Historians working in the heritage field could use the theme of transport to locate this station within a wider context of developing transport routes, and the theme of government and administration to explore understandings of the critical role of government in providing public transport across NSW.
What is the role of professional historians?
Work for professional historians in the heritage field typically consists of preparing historical context components, and contributing to the assessment of significance and the formulation of conservation policies in heritage studies and conservation management plans. There is also some demand for historians to prepare thematic histories for heritage and conservation registers held by state government agencies.
Professional historians wanting to work in the heritage field should, as a first step, inquire as to whether they are eligible for membership of the Professional Historians Association (NSW).
Examples of thematic histories
Thematic histories and heritage studies held at the Heritage Branch
The Heritage Branch Library holds copies of many thematic histories and heritage studies completed for NSW councils or organisations. These studies may be viewed at the Heritage Branch Library on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 9am - 5pm.
Download the list of Thematic studies (thematichistories.pdf, 79KB)
Email Elizabeth Robertson to make an appointment at the Heritage Branch Library:
firstname.lastname@example.org or phone (02) 9873 8591 (Mon, Wed, Fri).
Thematic histories commissioned by the Heritage Branch
The Heritage Branch occasionally commissions thematic histories of particular heritage subjects. These studies help us to identify what has survived and what is important. They also help to identify potential heritage items and to make comparisons across the State.
Beyond the Rolling Wave; A Thematic History of Greek Settlement in NSW
A thematic history by Craig Turnbull and Chris Valiotis, 2001, for the Heritage Branch that looks at Greek settlement in NSW since the first arrivals of 1810.
Central West Thematic History
Central West (thematichistorycentralwest.pdf, 458KB)
A regional history of the Central West region by Terry Kass, 2003. Completed as part of a project to identify significant items in the region for listing on the State Heritage Register.
Chinese Settlement In NSW; A Thematic History
A thematic history by Michael Williams, 1999, looking at the contribution of Chinese settlement to the heritage of NSW.
The Dutch in NSW; A Thematic History
The Dutch in NSW (thematichistorydutch.pdf, 611 KB)
A thematic history by Kirsten Velthuis, 2005, that explores the contribution of Dutch immigrants to NSW and identifies cultural heritage important to the Dutch community. Completed for the Johnstone Centre, Charles Sturt University, Albury.
A History of Italian Settlment in NSW
A thematic history by Catherine Kevin and Roslyn Pesman, 1998, for the Heritage Branch that charts the contribution of Italian migrants to NSW's cultural heritage.
Western Sydney Thematic History
Western Sydney (ThematicHistoryWesternSydney.pdf, 505KB)
A regional history of the Western Sydney region by Terry Kass, 2005. Completed as part of a project to identify significant items in the region for listing on the State Heritage Register.
For further information see Frequently asked questions, or email the Heritage Branch.
Page last updated: 01 September 2012