Explaining Your Place

Making a compelling argument for why a place matters will attract supporters and encourage creative thinking about strategies to protect it. This section of the Toolkit aims to help you make your case.

The more information that you can gather about a place, the better you will be able to tell its story, make a case for its importance, and advocate to preserve its use or fabric. Places that matter may have both tangible (physical) and intangible (traditions and stories) features that make them valuable. This part of the guide helps you to investigate the many different ways in which a place can be important.

Step 1: Collect Information

Know why your place is attention-worthy—and be able to show it—by doing research.

To advocate effectively for your place, you'll need to become fluent in explaining why it's interesting and have resources at hand to show it off. All this will involve doing research. You can conduct this research in stages, adding to it as time, resources, and opportunity allow. When researching a place, you're likely to discover layers of its story as experienced, remembered, and told by people, orally and in writing. One of the main ways to understand the importance of your place is to understand how it fits within different periods in history, as well as how it might be connected to larger events.

As you do research, think about all the stories your place can tell—from traditional tales, to popular memories, to histories based on evidence, and more.
 

Starting Your Research

Before talking with others about a place, prepare yourself by using materials found in libraries or on library web sites, elsewhere on the Internet, and in public or private collections, to find accurate, factual information.

Start by noting down what you know and don't know about the place. Your responses will suggest the next research steps to take. Consider these questions:

  • Who: Are there important individuals or significant groups (political, social, ethic, etc.) from the past or in the present that have strong connections to your place?
  • What: What are the uses, activities or events that have happened at your place? These might include one-time happenings like an important speech, or ongoing things like a type of manufacturing, or regular community gatherings.
  • When: When was your place built and/or opened and how long did it continue to be significant? (Significance can continue right up to the present.) What else was happening during this time period that might relate to your place?
  • How: How is your place connected to local, regional or national historic events and/or social, political, and economic movements of its time?
  • Why? Why is or was this place used for these uses, activities, or events?

Helpful resources for this kind of research include historic preservation organizations and local historical societies, as well as libraries. In addition to offering guidance with your research, local historians and librarians can help you assess your information sources carefully for their dependability and veracity (this step can be especially important with information found from informal online sources, but it extends to others as well).

Resource: See the History Matters website for a very helpful feature called "Making Sense of Evidence," http://historymatters.gmu.edu/. The site is worth exploring for other useful material too. 
 

Field Research: Site Visits & Interviews

"Go to the scene" is classic advice for researchers, detectives, and decision-makers of any kind: there are things you can learn about a place or a situation by being there and talking to people that you cannot learn in any other way.

Even if you know your place, purposeful visits to the site are essential. Leave the library, get off the Internet, and go talk to people and visit places personally. Close observations of the place and conversations with people who use it will help you to better describe to others the experience of being there—the look, sound, and feel of the place—as well as all the interesting things that go on there.

Field research involves many activities:

  • Site visits
  • Interviews
  • Recording
  • Creating a visual record, such as sketches, photographs and video
  • Looking through private collections of documents

Below we'll consider some of these steps, based on our experience with field research for the Census of Places that Matter. As you read, you're likely to come up with your own ideas about how to make the most of "going to the scene," so be sure to note them down.

Site Visits

Think of your visit as detective work: you're at the site to observe. Use the site visit to confirm or reconsider your ideas about who is interested in this place, and why they think it matters.

Important steps to take before, during and after a site visit include:

  • Contact the proprietor(s) of the place in advance, if possible.
  • Make a list of things you'd like to observe on your visit; bring it with you to remind you as you explore the site.
  • Take notes on your observations.
  • Record what you see and hear (with still or video cameras, audio recording equipment, etc.).
  • Try to make as many contacts as possible while you're at the place. Don't let shyness stop you from meeting people; you may not get a second chance.
  • Note down the ideas that your visit generates for further research.

What to Look For During Site Visits
The following suggestions for guiding your observations and questions about a place are based on our work with the Census of Places that Matter.

1. Focus on what happens at this place and try to find out why its users value it:

  • Is it related to musical, food, or other cultural traditions?
  • Is it related to an important event, or historical figure or group?
  • Is this where a particular activity originated?
  • If so, does it foster the activity's continuation?
  • Does it play a role in the development of a community or an area?
  • If none of the above, what has happened or is happening here, and why does it matter to the users or to you?

2. Be sure to notice or inquire into human relationships. The value of many places can be found in the social interactions and networks they host. Your observations might deal with questions such as:

  • What social, political, religious, occupational, recreational (or other) groups use the place?
  • Are the uses sequential or concurrent?
  • What do the people who use it have in common? What differences do they have?
  • Does the place welcome people of different backgrounds?
  • Does it exclude people?
  • Are the people who live near the place aware of it; do they value it?
  • Are there tensions, competition, or conflicts connected to the site, and differing perspectives about it?

You may not be able to answer all these questions from observations alone. Follow them up in interviews and conversations.

3. Take time to examine the appearance of the place. Its physical aspects are part of its history (and will be of particular relevance if you're contemplating any kind of landmark designation). Things to note include:

  • The type of structure, e.g., is it a building? What kind? What was it built for?
  • The distinctive physical features of your place—if it's a building, note interior and exterior—especially when you believe these features are connected to the historical events, memories, longstanding use, or other factors that make the place important.
  • The materials used in the interior and exterior.
  • If you recognize the architectural style, note that as well, but because places that matter are often structures of modest architectural distinction, you may not be able to neatly slot your site into a single architectural category using traditional standards.
  • Its current use; uses of this place may have changed over the years.

4. Understanding how a place relates to its surroundings provides another clue to the ways people may value it:

  • Is your place distinct from or well integrated into the neighborhood? Is it visited by locals and outsiders?
  • Does the spatial relationship of your place to its surroundings influence its use or function? For example, a small park standing in the midst of a densely built landscape may be especially meaningful to its neighbors because it's the only park around.
  • If your place hosts gatherings of some kind, who attends and where are they from?

Examining both current and historical maps can help you better understand the relationship of a place to its surroundings, as can observation and interviewing.

5. Stay alert to opportunities to get behind the scenes of a place:

  • Informal or impromptu tours offered during a site visit provide a chance to see things that wouldn't be otherwise visible.
  • Touring the site with a variety of guides may reveal varied insights.
  • Spontaneous conversations with people who happen to be at the site when you're visiting, such as neighbors, customers, people "passing through," or other types of visitors, can result in your collecting useful—and unexpected—information and perspectives.

6. Taking photographs during site visits will help you to more accurately recall the place later on, and see features that may have initially escaped your notice. Think about capturing:

  • Details of unique architectural features.
  • Evidence of how the place is used or was used in the past.
  • Events happening at the site.
  • Portraits of your interviewees.
  • You will especially value these photographs later on, when making public presentations: photos can bring your place to life in a way that words alone cannot. And since the appearance of a place changes over time, your photographs can contribute to the evolving visual record of the place.

Interviews

A big part of field research is conducting interviews; a big part of successful interviewing is finding the right people to talk to. Think broadly when considering whom to interview; you can always narrow your options down later.

Who to Interview
How many interviews to conduct will be a judgment call, based on available resources and time, and your evaluation of how valuable the interviews are for collecting information, as well as for securing community investment in your larger effort. You can always start with a few interviews, and add more as you need to; your initial contacts will lead you to others.

Some questions to consider in identifying good interview subjects include:

  • Who really likes or dislikes the place?
  • Who are the "official" and "unofficial" users?
  • Who are the neighbors?
  • Who has the most contact with the place today? In the past?
  • Who knows something about a theme that's key to a place?
  • Who is this place important to?
  • Who has known this place for the longest time?
  • Who is a good storyteller?

Once you've identified the groups of people who know or care about the place, or in some other way have an important perspective to offer, try to interview representatives from each.

To get multiple perspectives, try for a mix of people of different occupations, ethnic backgrounds, sexes, ages, and classes, who engage with the place in different ways. If a good mix of interviewees doesn't present itself right away, some routes towards meeting such people include:

  • Writing inquiries to newspapers, organizational newsletters, blogs, or online groups/mailing lists ("listservs")
  • Investigating other places connected to your place
  • Attending events related to the place, such as public forums, community celebrations, or heritage tours

How to Conduct a Rewarding Interview
1. Before the interview, develop questions based on what you think the person can tell you about the place:

  • Create questions beginning with phrases such as "tell me about" or "describe to me." Such open-ended questions (rather than questions which elicit yes or no answers) can reveal the most interesting information.
  • If you have already identified some of the reasons people value your place, frame your questions to bring these points up during the conversation.
  • Don't be afraid to ask questions whose answers seem obvious—you don't want your own, perhaps mistaken, assumptions to prevent you from capturing the interviewee's thoughts and memories.
    Sample questions might include:
      • What is your association with this place?
      • Tell me about some of your favorite stories about this place—either your own, or ones you've heard from others.
      • What is your most vivid/happy memory of the place? What are your sad memories?
      • Describe how the neighborhood has changed.

    This questionnaire has more sample questions to get you started.

2. During the interview, practice active listening. Interviewing is an exercise in good listening. Take care not to let your passion for the subject distract you from being an interested listener who elicits what the interviewee knows. This is your best contribution to a successful interview.

  • Use your questions as a guide, but stay flexible. You can revise your questions as the interview progresses if the conversation takes an unexpected but interesting turn. If your questions elicit a story or take the conversation in a direction that doesn't seem relevant, be cautious about cutting it off right away. You may be surprised at the connections that develop. You can gently direct the conversation back to your questions when you need to.
  • While some interviewees will need prompting in order to speak, don't worry if silences develop. Sometimes a person just needs time to remember, and letting pauses hang for a bit ensures that you don't accidentally cut off their best comments!
  • Use photos to elicit memories and conversation. Talk with your interviewee about photos you have brought with you, and ask if he or she can show you their photos of the place.
  • If interviewees speak about a photo without identifying it clearly, or do so when your tape recorder is off, either describe it into the tape yourself or make a note to do so later.
  • Be sure to ask your interviewee for research leads, such as other people to interview and books or articles to read. And remember to ask about private collections of photographs or other documents—these informal collections, big or small, can provide some of the most useful information.

3. After the interview, label your discs, tapes, and notes with the date of the interview, the correctly spelled name of the interviewee, and your name.

Evaluating What You've Learned
You're bound to encounter conflicting stories that are difficult to make sense of: whose account is right? But seeming disagreements can be informative: they often reveal divisions based on race, ethnicity, class, gender, age, and other factors. Also keep in mind that the act of remembering is itself a creative process. People's memories can vary over time for all kinds of interesting reasons. Memories can also evolve to conform to accounts that people have read or heard others tell.

Here are some suggestions for how to work with divergent stories about a place:

  • Compare a verbal account to written documentation or to other verbal accounts. Generally, the more verification from multiple sources you can find, the more likely an account is accurate. That said, use your judgment. You may have uncovered a new perspective or a long overdue correction to the historical record.
  • There may not be a right or wrong account, but rather a range of experiences and memories. Try to put conflicting stories into context by asking yourself some questions:
    • Who are the people giving you the information?
    • What is their relationship to the place?
    • How has the place served or not served them?
    • How do the conflicting experiences and  accounts differ  and what are some possible causes?

    Or, present the memory/story of a particular person in just that way, but remember that it may not represent a verifiable or widely-shared experience.

Resources

Making Sense of Oral History, by Linda Shopes

Step-by-Step Guide to Oral History, by Judith Moyer

A Place-Based Questionnaire, by Jennifer Scott

City Lore Interviewing Guide

Sample Release Agreement

Step 2: Develop Themes

Successfully conveying the larger picture about your place to others is a key step toward convincing them to care about it.

The thinking and research you've already done about who uses or cares about your place, and why they care, will give you a head start connecting your place to larger social and historical themes. You're looking to see how your place fits into broader accounts of the past or present. Identifying these connections will help you make the place compelling to others. Here are some examples of themes for sites listed in the Census of Places that Matter:

  • A former 19th century German-American beer garden
    Potential themes: 19th century immigration patterns; recreation and entertainment activities of the 19th century; the history of the German-American community.
  • An active 20th century African-American church
    Potential themes: churches and the Civil Rights Movement; the role of churches in 20th century African-American communities; African-American migration within the U.S.
  • A movie theatre built in the 1920s
    Potential themes: the development of the movie industry; sprawl and the changing American Main Street.

If you're stumped on coming up with themes for your place, talk with others, such as historians, curators, archivists, and librarians. These professionals can be great resources for ideas and can also point you towards good research materials.

All this said, sometimes places are important just within a local context. If you don't end up finding ties between your place and a larger historical movement or event, don't worry; your theme can be the uniqueness of your place, or its importance to your community.

After evaluating your themes, continue researching until you feel like you can present the relationship between the themes and your place persuasively, in a way that emphasizes the significance of the place. The theme will then become the framework for the compelling story of why your place matters. The next section of this Toolkit explores how to use that story to make the case for protecting it.