The Allure of Hyperlocal History

We like knowing that there are fuller histories of the world, but Arcadia Publishing reminds us that micro-histories of our little squares can be just as powerful.
By Casey N. Cep,
(Photo: i3aac/Flickr) 

Some time ago, a young Yugoslavian scholar went to Sweden to visit the Institute for Theater Research. While there, she was looked after by a woman called Mrs. Kristinia Johansson, a caretaker so dedicated that she took the young woman everywhere around Stockholm, to all the sites and every attraction of interest to tourists. One night, Johansson took her to the Royal Library, where the young woman found a book called The Encyclopedia of the Dead; in the book she found an entry about her father, who had died only a few weeks before.

It was no ordinary encyclopedia entry, for in it she found not only his essential biographical information, but so much more—rich, vivid details about every single aspect of his life. The entry seemed to go on forever, and it led from her father’s life into the life of her grandmother. The young woman was stunned by the level of detail: the sound of the cuckoo clock that woke him from his sleep, the text of his love letters, the name of the cobbler who fixed his shoes and the baker who made his rolls, the floor plan of the first house he shared with his life, the everything and the nothing of every one of his days.

“For The Encyclopedia of the Dead, history is the sum of human destinies, the totality of ephemeral happenings. That is why it records every action, every thought, every creative breath, every spot height in the survey, every shovelful of mud, every motion that cleared a brick from the ruins.”

The Encyclopedia of the Dead is not real but fictional, only a title in the short story “The Encyclopedia of the Dead.” Published in English for the first time in 1982 by the New Yorker, the story is a masterwork by writer Danilo Kiš. I was thinking of the story and the young woman who narrates it today when I started to write about another seemingly encyclopedic effort, this one to document local history. Arcadia Publishing, which began printing books in 1993, has a catalog of more than 9,000 titles, each focusing on a specific neighborhood, city, town, or local attraction in the United States. There’s one about the York County Trolleys in Maine, the Shaker communities of Kentucky, the stone architecture of Santa Barbara, the Jewish community of Strawberry Mansion in Philadelphia, even one volume devoted entirely to Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington, D.C.

Arcadia has an extraordinary library, one that you’ve probably seen more of than you realize. Arcadia’s books are all just over nine-inches tall, six-and-a-half-inches wide, and about two-inches thick. Thinner than your thumb, but a little taller than a stack of four quarters, the books all have a sepia photograph on the cover with a yellow title in a squared sunburst border. They’re sold in bookstores, of course, but other unexpected retailers as well: You’ve probably seen them on the counter by the cash register of your local hardware store or maybe on a standing rack at a neighborhood pharmacy.

Arcadia books don’t just have a standard size and cover design; they’re all arranged according to a very precise formula: a local historian or writer is commissioned to solicit, curate, and caption the 200 or so photographs that become the 128-page books. Sometimes there are fewer photographs, say 180, and sometimes there are more, say 220, but the volumes are always 128 pages and they almost always retail for $21.99.

It’s a standard that makes them easier and more affordable to publish since individual titles might only sell a few hundred or few thousand copies, but it also creates an egalitarian canon where no locale is more important than any other. Every landmark, every village is equal to all the others, at least in page count.

In that way, especially, these micro-histories remind me of the impossible volume in Danilo Kiš’s story. “For The Encyclopedia of the Dead,” he writes, “history is the sum of human destinies, the totality of ephemeral happenings. That is why it records every action, every thought, every creative breath, every spot height in the survey, every shovelful of mud, every motion that cleared a brick from the ruins.”

That every locale deserves such treatment may seem kitschy, but these books sell because such sentimentality is powerful, especially when it is fixed with such exactitude, like a single insect in a tiny piece of amber. 

Most history succeeds despite paucity, but these micro-histories, like Kiš’s encyclopedia, thrive on plenitude. Instead of having to choose a single representative town, every town gets its own 128 pages; although an extensive regional history might only have one chapter to spare for each state, Arcadia gives every county its own volume. So while, in its own words, Arcadia might only produce “small slices of hometown history [that] detail the often forgotten aspects of American life,” there are so many slices that they form a feast.

Arcadia certainly occupies a small niche in the publishing world, but it’s a comfortable one, one that resonates with the full meaning of that word, offering rare nests in a time of endless migration. Some customers might buy histories for places they’ve left or places where their ancestors once lived; many are engaging a kind of false nostalgia for places they’ve only recently discovered. You rent a summer home, and first buy the Images of America volume for your summer village to sit on the coffee table, but then eventually you use it to understand the settlement and development of your temporary home. Instead of having to go and gather old photographs, collect vintage postcards, or copy old maps of the neighborhood where you finally bought your house, you buy the Arcadia volume for your neighborhood and learn enough to feel like a lifer.

So many of us move from place to place with no deep, meaningful connection to those places that the haphazardness of education and employment can be counteracted by such volumes. Even though the books have only a short introduction and brief captions, the photographs are powerful anchors in unfamiliar seas.

That every locale deserves such treatment may seem kitschy, but these books sell because such sentimentality is powerful, especially when it is fixed with such exactitude, like a single insect in a tiny piece of amber. This is why Danilo Kiš’s story is narrated by a single woman, pursuing her own family’s history; she acknowledges the extensiveness of The Encyclopedia of the Dead, but ultimately that acknowledgment gets lost in her obsessive reading of her own father’s entry. In the same way, we like knowing that there are fuller histories of the world and of North America and of the United States and of our specific states, but we actually like reading these micro-histories of our little squares.

Arcadia succeeds because its books are more like Kiš’s encyclopedia than anything else on the market. And while the canon is growing, it’s hard not to sense that it’s shrinking, too: focusing on even smaller and smaller locales. With 9,000 titles, we’re nearing a level of saturation where every census-designated place will soon have its own volume: a possibility that makes the publisher resemble a printed equivalent of Google Maps, where geocached photographs are beginning to enliven every inch of the world. How long before Arcadia is mining our photographs to produce micro-histories of individual streets, specific houses, or even individual apartments?