Teacher's Guide

Investigating Local History

Vintage Saint Paul Minnesota Postcard, The High Bridge And Harriet Island, Printed In USA, circa 1910s.
Photo caption

Vintage Saint Paul Minnesota Postcard, The High Bridge And Harriet Island, Printed In USA, circa 1910s.

Our Teacher's Guide provides compelling questions, links to humanities organizations and local projects, and research activity ideas for integrating local history into humanities courses using a collection of NEH and State Council funded digital encyclopedias about the history, politics, geography, and culture of many U.S. states and territories. Note: Not every state and territory has produced an encyclopedia. Resources for historical, humanities, and arts councils are available for all states and territories. 

Guiding Questions

Who lives in your state or territory?

How has the function and structure of your state or territorial government changed over time?  

What artistic and cultural contributions have individuals and groups made to your state or territory and the United States?

What technological innovations have been created in your state or territory and how have they affected the people, environment, and culture?

How are local history and culture related to what you are studying?

State and Territory Encyclopedias & Resources

"It is important for all of us to appreciate where we come from and how that history has really shaped us in ways that we might not understand."

— Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court


Since April 2001, the National Endowment for the Humanities has made grant funds available for all 50 states, all five U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia to create comprehensive online encyclopedias. Included below with the state encyclopedias that have been created to date are links to state humanities councils, arts councils, and historical society websites in the interest of telling as full a story as possible about history and the humanities across the United States.  



American Samoa







District of Columbia






















New Hampshire

New Jersey

New Mexico

New York

North Carolina

North Dakota

Northern Mariana Islands





Puerto Rico

Rhode Island

South Carolina

South Dakota





Virgin Islands



West Virginia 



Teaching and Learning Local History

A place-responsive approach to teaching U.S. history and culture can bring lessons alive for students and help close gaps that emerge when looking to answer the question of relevancy and application in students's lives. The lesson ideas below blend concepts, content, and skill building for investigating change over time when studying time and place.

Designing Compelling Questions

Inquiry into the local begins with a question. Students can design their own question based on a topic or event of interest or being studied, or they can work with the following: How have events and individuals shaped the history and culture of this place?

Questions for teachers and students to consider when planning:

  • What was the last topic studied that included connections to the local?
  • What individuals, organizations, and other local resources can be included in this investigation?
  • Does this project warrant an oral history component?
  • Whose perspectives will be included when examining local history and culture?
  • What monuments, markers, and other relevant identifiers of local history already exist?
  • What is considered common knowledge and what has been mythologized within local history?
  • Who can be part of an audience for students to present their work to during this project?
  • How has the local changed over time due to innovation, economics, and movement of people?



  • How did the states get their shapes? The above video offers a preview of the the series produced by the History Channel that explored the often quirky reasons for why state borders formed the outlines we know today.

Researching with Local Newspapers

Chronicling America provides access to local and national newspapers dating back to the 17th century. Use the "search by state" feature to find local newspapers that can be used to teach primary source research skills such as gathering and evaluating information, comparative analysis, critical thinking, and the use of archival technology. You will also find collections of newspaper articles related to significant events, people, and eras in U.S. history and can search for newspapers published for and by multiple ethnic groups in the United States.

Sample questions to investigate when using Chronicling America to teach local history:

  • How did the local press report on the happenings of the civil war?
  • How did the press in your state or territory respond to the outbreak of WWI?
  • What did the editorials in your state or territory newspapers have to say about a landmark Supreme Court ruling?
  • What does an analysis of advertisements included in newspapers tell you about culture and consumerism?
  • How have changes in journalism and media affected how news is reported?

Suggestions for incorporating Chronicling America into your research and more activity ideas are available at our Chronicling America Teacher's Guide.

Researching with Digital Maps 

Living New Deal is a crowdsourcing project launched by the University of California, Berkeley in 2007 to identify, map, and analyze the national effects of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Since its inception, the project has digitally documented over 16,000 New Deal public works and art sites across the U.S. The national map contains plot-points that provide information and photographs about each site, making it possible for students to investigate how New Deal projects transformed their local and state communities. The project also includes maps and guides for prominent New Deal buildings and murals in Washington, D.C., New York City, and San Francisco. The crowdsourcing aspect of the project provides students the ability to learn how to research and document historic and cultural sites and their guide for New Deal sleuths explains how the public can contribute to the project. This interactive, crowdsourcing project pairs well with EDSITEment’s Landmarks of American History and Culture Teacher’s Guide for research projects on local and state history and culture.  

Digitally Documenting Local History


This NEH-funded educational website and mobile application guides the public to thousands of historical and cultural sites throughout the United States. Users can contribute to a growing database of projects designed to tell the history of places using photographs, mobile technology, and research on historical sites and events.

Activity ideas for using CLIO

Students tend to observe a lot as they move between school and home, thus making the spaces between those locations educative. Place-based learning can help bridge past and present while also asking students to reflect on their experiences and the relevance of the local to their lives. By using CLIO, students have an opportunity to document the past, analyze change over time, and evaluate the processes and forces at work in relation to place-making and history.

Starting the Inquiry

The following questions are designed to catalyze student research projects on local history and draw upon personal experiences and observations in the places where they live, play, work, and go to school. Students are encouraged to design their own questions as they select topics, eras, events, and places to investigate.

  • What events of significance occurred 10, 100, or even 250 years ago in your area?
  • How has the local environment (natural and physical) changed over time?
  • To what extent are the local developments and events you have highlighted tied to national events?
  • Who are the schools in your area named after and why?
  • Why were monuments or other historical markers erected in your area?
  • What local traditions and events are still practiced by members of the community?


Researching Place and Time

After students have selected a topic (which might be a local place), they will need to conduct research to learn more before the final stage that includes capturing photos and digitally organizing their CLIO project. The following list offers sources of information and methods for collecting information.

Historical Societies and Libraries—State, county, and local historical societies, along with public and university libraries provide free access to historical archives. Working with archivists and librarians, students can ask questions of experts and search through primary sources that tell the story of the topics and places they are researching. If your state or territory is not listed above, you can access a complete list of State Historical and Preservation Organizations to learn more about what is offered in your area.

Oral History—Interviewing people who own or have owned long running businesses, served in public office, run an organization, or lived in your area for a long time is one approach to learning how places have changed over time. Contacting someone to speak with about the topic, drafting questions related to the topic and project, conducting the interview, and transcribing that interview in order to use excerpts in the final product takes students through the inquiry process. Our Oral History Toolkit provides tips, resources, and other information pertinent to conducting oral history projects. 

Historical Newspapers—The Chronicling America database provides access to millions of pages from digitized newspaper dating back to the 17th century. You can search by state and newspaper name to learn if and how what you are researching was covered by the press.

Mapping Place and Time

Using the information collected during the research process, students create a digital map or a hand drawn map of the area they are focusing on. Creating multiple maps, depending on the topic, to illustrate change over time will assist with organizing information and telling the story of the place and events they have chosen to focus on. Students should create a map that can then serve as a guide for the places they will need to go to capture photographs and plot out for the CLIO project they create.

Creating a Digital CLIO

Students may upload photographs taken during their research along with those they capture after they have completed their map(s) in the previous stage of the activity.  Using the models provided at the CLIO website, students will upload their photos, curate the collection with information gathered from multiple sources during their research, and provide their own evaluation of why and how the places they live in and interact with have changed over time. Have they uncovered an event, learned about a heretofore forgotten person, or discovered some other information that may warrant public attention?

Mapping Local History

Digital Mapping

The emergence of digital mapping as an educational tool offers students an engaging, creative, and accessible way to learn about history at a local, state, or national level. Integrating these visual histories provides students with a historical and geographic context for narratives, events, and trends that are being discussed in class. Through Exploring Local History with Clio, students can learn how to investigate the history of their local community and contribute to the growing database of resources.  

Below is a collection of NEH funded digital maps that can be used in the classroom: 

Baltimore Traces

Baltimore Traces is an interdisciplinary project that uses media to explore the stories of Baltimore residents and neighborhoods. The project’s digital map features a collection of sites, events, and work being conducted by students at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. 

Deaf New York City Spaces

The Deaf New York City Spaces StoryMap created by students of Gallaudet University identifies historic and contemporary Deaf spaces in New York City. Integrated within the StoryMap are maps that categorize the sites by clubs, schools, places of worship, social spaces, and service facilities. 

The Ethnic Layers of Detroit

The Ethnic Layers of Detroit digital humanities project created by Wayne State University uses technology and archival resources to teach students about the cultural, linguistic, and historical background of sites across Detroit. The places included in the digital map elucidate the untold history of the mid-west city. 

Mapping the Gay Guides

The Mapping The Gay Guides project, led by students at California State University Fullerton, digitized the findings of Bob Damron, a gay man who documented places across the country that served as sites of refuge for other gay men during the 1950s and 60s. He later transformed his lists into a gay travel guide that doubled as survival guides to help gay and queer travelers locate safe places to sleep, eat, and socialize. The digital map allows users to choose a state and examine what sites operated in that area. 

The Long Road to Freedom: Biddy Mason's Remarkable Journey

The Long Road to Freedom: Biddy Mason’s Remarkable Journey project documents the journey of Biddy Mason from enslavement in Georgia to becoming a landowner and community organizer in Los Angeles. Students can use the interactive map to learn about the “Second Middle Passage.” The project also includes a Google map that highlights significant historic and cultural sites associated with Los Angeles’s early African American history. 

Below are some questions to encourage students to engage with the maps:  

  • How can digital maps be used to learn about historical events and trends? 
  • What does the map show you? 
  • How does this map build upon what you are studying in class? 
  • What does the map show you that other secondary sources cannot? 
  • What topics, events, issues, or themes relevant to your local community could you map? 
A map of a collection of deaf spaces in New York City.
Photo caption

One of the maps featured in the Deaf New York City Spaces project.

Mental Mapping

Mental mapping is another effective visual learning tool to help students examine their perceptions of their community. This activity entails asking students to create a mental image of their local community and translating those images into a drawing. Encourage them to think as broadly and creatively as possible. Through this process, students will recognize the differences between their objective knowledge and their subjective opinions about their local community.  

Once students are finished, have them compare their drawings and discuss what the differences inform us about our perceptions of place. The Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation conducted a mental mapping project titled “Where We Are From” that can serve as a form of inspiration. 

Below are questions for students to discuss after creating their mental maps: 

  • How did your mental map compare with other students? 
  • What memories did you use to help you create your map? 
  • Did mental mapping change how you see your community? 
Place, Memory, and Perspectives

In this video, Erin Aoyama and Allison Mitchell discuss strategies for connecting the local past to the present and demonstrate the value of using place-based approaches to interpret history. They offer recommendations on locating and engaging primary sources and activities to support place-based learning. Both historians draw upon their own research to illustrate how studying local history can support students in making sense of their communities and contemporary challenges.

Historians Aoyama and Mitchell draw upon their research to offer perspectives on studying local history. Both Aoyama and Mitchell engage place-based approaches in their work. Erin Aoyama’s research examines Japanese incarceration camps in the South during World War II. She considers how Japanese American incarceration, particularly at the Rohwer and Jerome camps established by the federal government in Arkansas, fit into a larger story of the Jim Crow racial order. Allison Mitchell’s research considers the role of Black placemaking in the struggle for voting rights in the South. She looks at the independent Black town of Eatonville, Florida as a key site for understanding the connection between political and community autonomy for Black Southerners. You can learn more about Erin Aoyama’s research on the Rohwer and Jerome camps through our Heart Mountain Why Here? series. You can learn more about Allison’s work and Eatonville through our Zora Neale Hurston and Eatonville Why Here? series. 

Questions for teachers to consider when teaching place and memory

  • How can you explore the connection between history and space in your local community? 
  • What kind of primary sources can we use to support inquiry in local history? How might using poetry, music, and other art as primary sources enrich place-based learning? 
  • Are there people or organizations locally who could offer oral histories or other perspectives on this history?  
  • How might this local history shift how students interpret or respond to contemporary conditions or issues in the community? 
  • What skills can this historical investigation offer students for navigating their present local community?  
  • How might studying local case studies shift students’ perspectives on topics or themes in national American history? 
  • What kind of technical tools and skills can students use or develop to investigate community histories? 
NEH in Your State and Territory

The National Endowment for the Humanities continues to support high-quality projects and programs in the humanities and makes the humanities available to all Americans. So whether you are traveling for work or pleasure, visiting an area museum, or spending time with friends and family at home, you will find that the NEH is just around the corner (or already in your hands). NEH funded affiliates and collaborators on state and local history and culture projects, and how they connect to the national story of the United States, can be found through the resources below:

NEH Federal/State Partnership Office—The Office of Federal/State Partnership is the liaison between the National Endowment for the Humanities and the nonprofit network of 55 state and jurisdictional humanities councils.

NEH Division of Education Programs Grant for Landmarks of American Culture and History—This program supports a series of one-week workshops for K-12 educators across the nation that enhance and strengthen humanities teaching at the K-12 level.

NEH Division of Public Programs—The Division of Public Programs supports a wide range of public humanities programming that reaches large and diverse public audiences and make use of a variety of formats—interpretation at historic sites, television and radio productions, museum exhibitions, podcasts, short videos, digital games, websites, mobile apps, and other digital media. 

NEH Division of Preservation and Access—A substantial portion of the nation’s cultural heritage and intellectual legacy is held in libraries, archives, and museums. All of the Division of Preservation and Access’s programs focus on ensuring the long-term and wide availability of primary resources in the humanities.

State Humanities Councils—The State Humanities Councils are funded in part by the federal government through NEH's Federal/State Partnership Office. They also receive funding from private donations, foundations, corporations, and, in some cases, state government.

National Humanities Alliance—The National Humanities Alliance is on top of all NEH related events, exhibits, and projects taking place around the country. 

NEH on the Road—Is there a NEH sponsored exhibit near you? Would you like there to be? NEH on the Road provides ready-to-go exhibits for organizations and classrooms. Learn if one is currently available near you and how to set one up on your own.