Two Simple Questions?
My practice of local history is guided by two questions: 1) Who are we?; and 2) Why do we live here?
I am sure that other people interested in local history may be guided by other questions—I’d love to learn what they are—but I have yet to add another one to my list of two. Perhaps it is because these two seemingly simple questions end up being quite complex once I start digging into them.
Let’s start with the first one, which tries to get at what makes Westborough unique or different from other towns. But the crux of the question lands on the last word: we. Who is this “we”? How do we define who belongs in this special “club,” and who gets to make the decisions about the qualifications? Local history is generally organized by city or town, although sometimes regions and even states can be considered “local” given the context of the discussion. So for my purposes, “Westborough” defines the domain of the collections and the research resources that I oversee as the Local History Librarian here in town.
But this domain of inquiry can be shown to be artificial simply based on history. When we go back in time to examine the history of local Native Americans, we have to change our terminology because they did not organize themselves and the land according to the European idea of “town.” Later, after Europeans imposed town borders on the land, the artificial nature of this domain of inquiry continues to be revealed by the number of times our town border changed over time. Before we became Westborough, we were a part of Marlborough. After we left that town, Northborough split from us. Over the years, parts of our borders with Shrewsbury, Grafton, and other towns have also shifted.
Once again, pay close attention to the “we” in the above paragraph. Are the people who live in Westborough that much different from the people who live or lived in surrounding towns? And isn’t it odd to be saying “we” when talking about the history of a town? Is this “we” being defined as those who are living or have lived at one time on land that now falls within Westborough’s borders? If so, do we consider the Native Americans who originally lived on this land part of this “we”? And what about people who at one point moved away from Westborough, do they still belong? Even more, what are the true connections between me and the people who used to live on this same land long ago when the life I live today is so completely different? Are the “we” of today part of the “we” of yesterday?
I grew up on the south side of Chicago and moved to Westborough in 2007. Am I any less a part of this “we” than people who can trace their ancestors back to earlier times in Westborough history? If so, who gets to decide that family lineage is an important factor in this definition of “we”?—not to mention that such a club would be quite small and that the Native American question would always loom close at hand if we did adopt such a standard!
I could go on, but we haven’t even gotten to the second question. In many ways, this one is more complicated than the first, although the two are related. We all think that the reasons we live in Westborough are relatively random: we moved here for a job, our family has “always” lived in town, we liked the schools, the real estate was cheaper (at least compared to other towns closer to Boston), etc. Yet, what we individually think and experience as being random is usually socially determined. We can identify social patterns that are often governed by economic, geographic, political, and even historical factors for why certain groups of people decided to live on the land we now call Westborough. Most likely, you fall into one of these groups. And these social patterns have everything to do with how we go about defining the “we” in “Who are we?”
Okay, after tearing apart the questions that first started this essay, let’s put the pieces back together again. Communities have history. And evolving, thriving, and vibrant communities attend to that history, because the people who live in these communities want to live in a place where people share and care about each other. We study history because we want to develop a stronger sense of “we.” Yes, I grew up on the south side of Chicago, yet because I study and am deeply involved in the history of Westborough, I truly feel like I am a part of the “we” of my town even though there are aspects of it that still at times seem foreign or make me uncomfortable. That’s okay. History at times involves conflict and tension as group members (re)work out who they are and who they want to be. But even if the questions “Who are we?” and “Why do we live here?” are difficult, if not impossible, to answer in any complete way, the search for the answers make us better and more united as a people. I encourage you to learn about the history of Westborough and, consequently, discover how you belong to and are important in defining this “we.”
—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian
- Why You Can’t Teach United States History without American Indians, ed. Susan Sleeper-Smith, et. al.
- Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America, by James M. Fallows and Deborah Fallows.
- American Like Me: Reflections on Life Between Cultures, ed. America Ferrera with E. Cayce Dumont.
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Westborough History on Facebook
I’m not a big fan of Mark Zuckerberg, but there are so many wonderful and creative Facebook Groups that discuss Westborough history and its community that I just have to point them out. Here are some of my favorites (some of them are private groups, but I’m sure you can join if you have any connection to Westborough):
- We are from Westborough, MA!
- The Heart of Westborough
- Westborough Photography
- Downtown Improvement Group
Did I miss any? Feel free to add any that I missed in the Comments section below. And don’t feel like you have to limit your suggestions to Facebook—I’m just more familiar with this particular social media platform.
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