Historical research: a guide for communities

by | Jul 20, 2019

There are two different – and complimentary – approaches to take when doing historical research. These are:

  • Primary research which would typically entail doing interviews with community elders, interviews with subject matter specialists, archival research, site visits or similar types of research where you do the research yourself
  • Secondary research entails a survey of available, published material by other authors and researchers that contain relevant information about the area, an event, people or sites associated with a place

Because the second method is generally a good place to start in order to identify what is already available in the public domain, we will describe secondary research first. This will help you to both identify what is already known about the community as well as help you assess areas that may require further research through primary research methods.

Secondary research

As a first step, you need to be clear as to what questions you want answered.

This could be, for example,

  • When was the community established?
  • How has the community been written about?
  • What can I find out about the architecture of my local church/ temple/ mosque/ synagogue?
  • What events have taken place in the community?
  • Are there any famous figures or interesting figures who lived in the community? How do I find out more about them?
  • What popular stories (such as legends) or anecdotes do I want to confirm as factually correct? The origin of the legend may lend a further light to the research.

Once you have created a list of questions, think of different search words that will help you in your research. Google (or other search engines) is a good platform to use but we suggest you use Google Scholar and Google Books in addition to the normal Google search engine, as you will find more reputable sources in this manner.

Ask your librarian

Your local librarian may know of books that have been published on your subject. Books may be either fictional or non-fictional. Sometimes fictional accounts can contain evocative descriptions of an area that can be of interest. These can come from plays, novels, short stories or poems. But be careful, never present fictional accounts as fact.

Non-fictional sources would include encyclopedias, published histories of places, traveler accounts and travel guides, biographies or autobiographies of people. A good starting point is to consult books on the history of place names (there are a few that have been published in South Africa). The Encyclopedia of South Africa (edited by Krista Johnson and Sean Jacobs; 2011) is another useful reference.

For biographies, a good resource to consult is the Southern African Dictionary of National Biography compiled by Eric Rosenthan (1966). Most universities also have substantial collections of books of regional and local interest and their library collections can be searched online. Other useful sources of Information are old Who’s Who of Southern Africa volumes, street directories and old telephone directories. Remember to always cross reference between sources to verify facts.

Your librarian will also be able to assist in searching specific topics (or search words) that you have identified or will be able to explain the search methods you can use to look for published books.

You can also use Google Books to search for books that are topical to the community.

To search the catalogue of the National Library of South Africa go to http://www.nlsa.ac.za/.

Contact your local municipality for a list of libraries in your area. Note that in the cities, the main central library would have the most comprehensive collections and services on offer.

Remember you can also ask your librarian for an inter-library loan – this simply means that your local library requests a title from another library to be sent to your librarian on your behalf.

Lastly, find out about specialist library collections in your community. These might be specific collections housed at a library, university, museum, archive or other institution. In South Africa specialist libraries include the Harold Strange Library of African Studies at the Johannesburg City Library and the Killie Campbell Africana Library in Durban.

Published sources: Community institutions

Sometimes municipalities, universities, schools, churches, synagogues, mosques, the Memorable Order of Tin Hats, Masonic Lodges or other local institutions have produced useful commemorative histories.  These will tell much about a local community.

Published sources: Journals

Academic research is usually published in academic journals. There are two types of journals: journals which are freely available online, and journals that are only available to paid subscribers.

As a start, you can use the internet to search for academic papers that will be of use to you. Google Scholar is a useful tool for searching for published articles in journals.

Simply go to https://scholar.google.co.za/ and use the search function to search your search words.

Through Sabinet you can access both subscriber and open access journals. Visit https://www.sabinet.co.za/

If you are a student at a university you will be able to access journals for free through your university’s online library services.

Published sources: Theses/ dissertations/ academic research papers

Most universities publish their Master and PhD theses and dissertations and these are freely accessible on the internet. For South African sources you can search the National ETD Portal at http://www.netd.ac.za/.

Published sources: Newspapers

Main libraries (such as your central library) have copies of newspapers – and newspaper articles. These may be accessible either physically or through microfiche. Your librarian will be able to assist you once you have located the article you are looking for. Most South African newspapers (or media houses) have internet search functions that you can use. Sometimes internet articles are only available to subscribers so if you want a copy of the article, head to your central library.

Useful tip

www.newspapers.com is an international website that publishes digital copies of newspaper articles mostly sourced from North American and European newspapers. The website is subscriber based but has a free 7-day trial option that you can try (you will need a credit card however). You can use the site to search international newspapers for coverage of local places, people or events. Before your trial ends remember to cancel your subscription to avoid incurring costs!

Published sources: Images

South Africa has a tumultuous 20th century history in which political events have loomed large. These events have generally been well documented by photojournalists and professional photographers. While reproduction rights of images can be very expensive, you can use online photographic or image libraries to search for more information about events that happened or even to see how places looked like in the past. An online search will take you to digital image libraries such as Africa Media Online, GreatStock and others.

When using this source, remember that newspapers may be prejudiced in favour of a particular political cause. Therefore, check on how other contemporary newspapers have documented events.

Another visual resource is vintage postcards. One can find these pictures by looking for postcard dealers and auction sites. Your local museum might also have a collection.

Heritage studies, surveys and reports

When developments take place, heritage impact assessments are often a legal requirement in terms of the National Heritage Resources Act. These reports are sometimes accessible online. The reports usually contain an overview of the history of the area in which the development is to take place. These reports are compiled by professionals and subject matter experts. A good place to search is the South African Heritage Resources Agency database, accessible at http://sahra.org.za/sahris/search/site. Alternatively you can also contact the arts, culture and heritage department of your local municipality to enquire whether they are aware of heritage surveys that have been conducted in your area. Also speak to your provincial heritage resources authority.

Official heritage lists and inventories

If you are researching heritage sites, you can contact your provincial heritage resources authority for an official list of protected heritage resources in your community. You can also search the South African Heritage Resources Agency database accessible at http://sahra.org.za/sahris/search/site.


Government records are kept at archival repositories. In South Africa the primary archival repository is the National Archives and Records Service of South Africa. Among others you can find maps, building plans, important communications, official enquiries and other records at the archives. Note that searching the archives can be challenging for the uninitiated so we recommend that you contact them about arranging a training session during your visit.

Other archives include archives of famous people (such as the Nelson Mandela Archives) which are independently run or archives found at universities which are usually thematically focused such as the Historical Papers archive.

The records of the National Archives and Records Service of South Africa can be searched online at www.nationalarchives.gov.za.

For a list of other archives visit the Archival Platform at www.archivalplatform.org/

For genealogical research consult http://sagenealogy.co.za. 

Property registers

With an erf number you can search property registers at the Deed’s Office or the Chief Surveyor General Office. The history of land grants, transfers, subdivisions and consolidations of properties are typically contained in these registers.

Statistical data

Statistics and census data can be tracked for example in the Union Statistics. More recent statistics can be accessed via the website of Statistics South Africa. Useful data include population figures, gross national product, economic data, mining production data and more.

Plans and architectural archives

All buildings must be approved by a local municipality prior to construction. These municipalities keep records of plans that have been passed as well as information about the owners. These records are typically kept at the archives of the planning department of your local municipality. The archives can be consulted to confirm information such as the name of the first owner, the name of the architect of the building or the year in which the building was erected. The records will also contain copies of the building plans. Note that access to these plans is sometimes restricted to the owner of the building/ property being researched but explain the purpose of your research to the officials concerned. Furthermore, the municipal archive is often not complete. Sometimes information is lost or has been destroyed. In the case of important architects you can also consult the architectural archives of your local university. Museums may similarly have building plans of important buildings and structures.

Lastly, it is important to note that houses in townships (and in the case of social housing) were often constructed using standard architectural designs that were categorised as “types”. Type A houses could for example be one bedroom houses, Type B two bedroom houses etc. This means that you may not be able to find a plan for a specific house but rather the standard plans for that “type” of house.

It is important to keep in mind that “cultural significance” is defined in the National Heritage Resources Act as “aesthetic, architectural, historical, scientific, social, spiritual, linguistic or technological value or significance”. Therefore a structure or place may lack cultural significance because it is not aesthetically or architecturally important, but may have historic or social significance, or other attributes that warrant further research.

To find out more about specific South African architects consult www.artefacts.co.za. Since many early South African architects trained in the UK, you can also consult the Royal Institute of British Architects.


Libraries, archives and museums house historic maps dating as far back as maps made by early European explorers. Late 19th and early 20th century maps show place names, natural features or places that may have changed radically over the course of the 20th century. The National Geo-spatial Information Service and local, regional or even national museums will be able to assist you. Also try your central library or archival collections. In many cases you need not physically visit these facilities but can phone ahead with your enquiry. Note: Many museums do charge a fee for the reproduction of material.

Aerial photographs

The Office of the Chief Surveyor General has records of aerial photographs. Aerial photographs were taken periodically throughout the 20th century and these can be great visual aids when trying to understand – and depict – the growth of the community. With the help of these photographs the date of a particular structure may also be deduced.


Most smartphones have a voice memo function that you can use to record interviews. Alternatively you can use your smartphone to take photographs or make video recordings. As part of your research process you may wish to interview people who have information about your community. These can include:

  • Community elders
  • Political leaders
  • Eye witnesses
  • Religious leaders
  • Teachers
  • Artists
  • Subject matter specialists

You can either prepare a list of questions before hand (known as “structured interviews”) or else follow a loose ended conversation (“unstructured interviews”). We suggest that you prepare a number of questions in advance but allow the interviewee to be comfortable to talk freely. For useful articles on conducting oral histories visit South African History Online: http://www.sahistory.org.za/article/oral-history-guidelines.

Personal collections

Sometimes community elders, and others, have collections of old photographs, newspaper clippings, articles or other similar material about the community. Use notice boards, social media or the local newspaper (‘knock-and-drops’) to issue a request to community members to share information that they may have. Also approach the local church (or other religious institution) and school as they may have official records that you can consult.

Tips from a historian

  • Accuracy and fact checking is important. Sometimes errors become replicated simply because the “fact” has been published. It is advisable to check and confirm facts from more than one source of information. Be particularly vigilant when using internet sources as they may not always be accurate.
  • Define the time period and the place you are writing about. Also beware of imposing present mindedness on the past i.e. as one comes closer to the present there is more information so the present assumes a disproportionate importance.
  • Researchers should keep records of their sources of information so that, in turn, later scholars can check the facts and data from these source documents. Without proper sources and referencing, your research is of limited value.
  • There are many different types of history ranging from architectural to social, military, economic, gender, religious and political and more. Gain an understanding of the range and reach of these different types of histories. Understand how historians write history and why.
  • History is not just about facts but about opinion and interpretation as well. The purpose of history is to place facts in a context of their times. Current day values and judgements should not be imposed on the past. It is important to keep in mind that how people behaved and made decisions in the past was a function of the technology, values, attitudes and limitations of their own lives.
  • Read good history if you want to learn to write history.
  • Always get someone else to assist with editing and fact checking. Someone else might spot inconsistencies, find errors or ask questions that will further enrich your research.

With thanks to Prof. Kathy Munro and Herbert Prins for their valuable inputs. Adapted from Place Matters. 2017. HOWZ!T! Gauteng Township Experiences Challenge – Research Tips. Report prepared for the Gauteng Department of Economic Development.