Introduction to Historical Studies

Sep 2015

I am new to this forum, but I think I'll be coming here quite often. I like the material on here and the discussions are very interesting.

A question I have is that a lot of times, we read history books, but not so often do we find books that talk about the method of compiling history or 'introductions to historical studies,' if you will.
What books do you recommend on:
1) Historiography.
2) The historical method.

Anything that has to do with the more theoretical part of writing and reading about history.


Forum Staff
May 2013
Albuquerque, NM
1. Before writing anything, we need to think through who our audience is and exactly what our purpose is in writing for that audience. If your purpose is scholastic fame that might last a generation or so, you adopt very a very different sort of process than if you are hoping to sell a historical novel to Hollywood. The rigors of research, citations, and degree that imagination "fills in the blanks", vary.

2. Research. There are two sorts of research materials: Primary and Secondary sources. Primary sources are those recorded by the actual participants to a historical event, or period. Included within Primary source material are artifacts and records of the time/event. Military after-action reports, diaries, journals and logbooks are all primary sources. A collection of swords dating from the 14th century are a primary source if you are writing about the evolution of cut and thrust weapons, are another example. Ancient carvings and modern photographs are primary sources.

Primary sources are generally believed to be of great value because they are "eye-witness" accounts. Churchill's accounts of WWII meetings with FDR and Stalin are of great interest because few had a better opportunity to interact with major leaders at the highest policy and strategic levels. An even better primary source might be the private journal of Churchill or FDR. Among the many problems with primary sources are: Eye-witnesses are terribly biased, they see only a small portion of the larger picture, and they are bound by the values and forms of their times. We worry about authenticity, and a sources hidden motives. Even so, for scholarly work primary sources are preferable, and the rarer the primary source the better.

Secondary sources are generally easily available in libraries and archives. These are the works produced further away from the historical event. Newspaper reports, scholarly studies, and popular versions of the event, or time, still have a lot of value but are less revered by serious students of history. Often the only reports close in time and place are secondary sources. For instance, a newspaper story from Gettysburg about that battle, but written on the second anniversary of the event very likely may provided details otherwise lost to us. The reporter may not have been present, but he/she had living witnesses to interview ... some perhaps for the first time since the event.

Scholars are meticulous in documenting their sources, both primary and secondary. Other writing focused on historical subjects may not provide, nor need any sources citations.

(more later)


Forum Staff
May 2013
Albuquerque, NM
I'm sorry to see so little activity on your thread. Oh well. From here, let's put research for historical novels aside because the audience is far more interested in an exciting story well told than in anything more than general facts. At the other extreme are the academic specialists whose work methods are directed to other academic specialists. Not many in the general population will spend hours, or even days, poring over the minute details of an academic study into the evolution of cut and thrust weapons. It can transform your armchair into an uncomfortable bed.

Objectivity: A "good" historian has an open mind and can evaluate evidence without preconceived conclusions. That's the goal, but no one can ever fully achieve it. Academic specialists go out of their way to banish any sign of passion from their writing for fear that their professional reputation will suffer. They produce excellent work, but it takes a dedicated scholar to wade through desolate prose, and then have to integrate the very specific with the larger more general topic. When a "historian" adopts a particular view, or obviously has some self-serving position, they are actually propagandists.

We can never completely know and understand even those recent events where we were the central (?) character in the story. That is because there are multiple perspectives, standards, and expectations that as often as not are contradictory. If we have six eyewitness accounts of an event, which is closest to the "facts"? This calls for weighing the various reports and making subjective judgments. That is what historians do; they examine the widest range of documents and evidence available, and then they make a selective judgement as what they will believe. We may start with a hypothesis based on whatever our existing knowledge and beliefs are, and then we set aside those conclusions as much as possible so that all of the evidence can be equally evaluated.

From an objective assessment of the "facts", we select those that are most persuasive in the resulting step up in our educational knowledge and understanding. Scholars are likely to reach vastly different interpretations based on a common set of facts because they value and select elements to fit their needs. So, objectivity is sought after and highly valued in serious historical writing, but the historian recognizes his own biases. As students, we have to read carefully across a wide range of sources in hopes of reducing individual bias, and to discipline ourselves not to leap to conclusions.

(more to come)


Ad Honorem
Jan 2014
Santiago de Chile
It's not perhaps one of the great classics of historiography but I've always found Patricia Nelson Limerick's book regarding western american history, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, a good starting point as any for american history as it shows the complexities of historiography as it exists today in the academic world and at the same time it shows how so many multiple views regarding the past can exist, though the book is more of a general history regarding western history (as in the 'old west') it presents the reader with many different areas of historiographic analisis to think about as she progresses in the narrative.
Other titles that I can recomend (i'm not saying they are my favorites but they are considered classics overrall in history) Fernand Braudel's colossal study on the mediterranean (to see how the long duree concept works out and to get acquainted with the annals school of historiography) Carlo Ginzburg for microhistory, Michel Foucault's work regarding discipline and punishment and the setup of the modern world is very highly regarded. Other authors such as E.P. Thompson and his Making of the english working class, Robert Darnton's The Great cat massacre and other episodes in french cultural history also comes to mind. Eric Hobsbawm's book The Invention of tradition I found to be very enlightening when I first checked it out in undergraduate studies.