The Work of the Historian

"History is a story about the past that is significant and true."

Historians study the past by interpreting evidence.  The historian works by examining primary sources -- texts, artifacts, and other materials from the time period.  From comparing these sources and evaluating them in context, the historian develops interpretations, often in light of the interpretations of other historians.  The interpretative writings of historians --books, journal articles, encyclopedia entries -- are considered secondary sources.

 World War I Poster 1917                World War I Poster:  An Education For You Join the Tanks Corp                 World War I Poster  Be A Trained Nurse                   

  World War I Poster circa  1917         An Education for You:  Join                    Be A Trained Nurse                                
                                                        the Tanks U.S. Army circa 1919             circa 1918


 Why Study History?

 For a brief overview of why history is important, watch this video by Joanna Hayes entitled "Why Study History?"

  Portrait of Lincoln                 Book cover:  The Horrors of Andersonville               Book:  Civil War Medicine

General Characteristics of Humanities Literature and Scholarship

Research in the humanities differs from research done in the sciences.  The following points are important to keep in mind when describing how scholarship is approached.

  • Research in history focuses on the unique experience and study that the scholar brings to the products of recorded human thought and creativity, represented by original manuscripts and other primary sources.
  • Generally there are no "definitive" answers; direct causal relationships are not forthcoming.
  • Scholars strive for valid interpretations of history.
  • Scholars generally work alone, dealing either exclusively with primary sources themselves, or with secondary literature surrounding these sources.
  • Methodologies follow no universally prescribed norm.
  • Due to the individualistic nature of the research, there is little sharing of information with colleagues before publication.
  • Most research appears as journal articles or books.  Timeliness of publication is of little consequence to the reader; reactions and debate may continue for years with no definite resolution.
  • Books represent a relatively large proportion of the literature, allowing for indepth exploration of context and interpretation.

Conducting Research for a History Paper

The assignment of writing a research paper for a college-level history course is an important skill.  Patrick Rael of Bowdoin University outlines three important steps:

"First, students must find a historical problem worth addressing.  This is done most often by reading and comparing secondary history sources, such as monographs and journal articles.  Simply finding relevant secondary materials requires its own particular set of skills in using the library:  searching catalogs, accessing on-line databases, using interlibrary loan, and even knowing how to pose questions to reference librarians.  Reading these sources, determining their arguments, and putting them in conversation with each other constitute another broad set of skills which are enormously difficult to master.

Second, having developed a historical problem, students must find a set of primary historical sources, which can actually address the question they have formulated.  Once again, this is no easy task.  It requires another array of skills in using the library.  Students must know how to navigate the on-line library catalog. They must be willing to explore the stacks, learn to use special collections, travel off-campus to new libraries, or interview informants.  This kind of primary source research demands a diligence and persistence rare in these days of easy Internet access.

Finally, students must put all this information together and actually produce knowledge.  They must craft a paper wherein they pose a clear historical problem and then offer a thesis addressing it.  In a well-structured, gramatically correct essay, they must work their way through an argument without falling into common historical fallacies.  They must match evidence to argument, subordinate little ideas to big ones, and anticipate and pre-empt challenges to their argument."

In the next section, historical thinking skills, we'll examine the steps above in more detail.


Scientific Information Literacy Modules
Unit 1:  What is Science?
Unit 2:  Scientific Information
History Information Literacy Modules
copyright 2011 Napa Valley College

updated June 14, 2011, by Nancy McEnery, Reference Librarian-Instructor