5 tips for historical research: from uncovering local history to plotting your family tree

Collectors in their own right are historians. Whether they realize it or not, no matter what type of collection they are honing it is a microcosm of society at the time of the collectibles creation and usage. They are the heralds of history, the keepers of the physical pieces of the past. Keeping those collections safe may be an obsession for some, but without the physical items, whether they are books, historical documents, photos, furniture, clothing, etc., our past would only be a matter of “he said,” “she said.”

The article below is a guideline for people interested in putting the puzzle pieces of an era together with the intent of shedding light on it and sharing their knowledge with others.

Whether you’re tracing your family tree, writing a historical novel or book, or taking on a personal research project to uncover an unfamiliar historical idea or period, you will need to conduct some research to further your knowledge and understanding. Here, Dean Blackburn, a lecturer in modern history at the University of Nottingham, offers some useful tips for amateur historians to help to make the research process as efficient and rewarding as possible. This article comes from History Extra.

Staff Photo by John Ewing: 20070508 — Tuesday, May 8, 2007 — Martha McNamara, a University of Maine, Orono, history professor goes over some 150 year old documents she found at the Maine Historical Society library while doing research for a book she is writing. (Photo by John Ewing/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

1. Establish some research questions

Conducting historical research will be much easier if it is directed towards some clear and realistic objectives. One way to define these objectives is to establish some questions that your research will help answer. These questions can take different forms, but they should narrow your field of vision and provide you with a clear purpose. Good examples will:

  • direct your attention towards certain problems
  • be achievable with the resources you have available
  • encourage an original contribution to the field of study

Consider a researcher who is interested in the history of a political party. They could be interested in many aspects of the organisation, but they cannot hope to investigate them all. So, some questions that draw attention to particular chronological periods and problems will be useful. These questions could, for instance, explore a particularly important moment in the party’s history:

  • Why did the British Labour party win the 1945 general election?
  • Did the Second World War change political attitudes?
  • What were the political consequences of the 1945 election?

All of the above questions are closely related and will narrow the researcher’s focus.

26th July 1945: British Prime Minister Clement Attlee (1883 – 1967) celebrates a Labour Party election victory with fellow MP WV Edwards (left) and Mrs Attlee at Stepney in London. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images) If a researcher is interested in the history of a political party, such as the Labour party, suggests Dean Blackburn, they might ask questions such as why the party won Britain’s 1945 general election under Clement Atlee.

2. Read your sources critically

A historian is not a mere chronicler of events who organises facts into a chronological order; they also evaluate the phenomena they study and arrive at judgements about their relative significance. This process often begins by approaching historical sources – the ‘raw materials’ of the past – in a particular way. Rather than reading these materials for their immediate ‘messages’, the historian will seek to uncover the meanings that might be hidden within them. This might involve asking certain questions of the evidence. Take, for example, this map that was produced by a cartographer in the 18th century. If we want to use this map to better understand the moment it was produced, we might ask these kinds of questions:

  • What are the choices that the cartographer has made?
  • How does the map represent certain territories? And do these representations have a political implication?
  • What are the underlying assumptions that have informed the cartographer’s approach?
  • What does the map mean? And what might it have meant to contemporary readers?
Map of the City of London, City of Westminster, River Thames, Lambeth and Southwark, 1736. Top left shows two elevations of Banqueting House and Treasury. Lower section shows views of the Royal Exchange, Bank of England, Monument and the River Thames. (Photo by Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images) We can use a map produced by a cartographer in the 18th century to better understand the moment it was produced, but we might ask certain kinds of questions, suggests Dean Blackburn.

3. Think about what you cannot see

When we are evaluating historical sources our attention is often drawn towards details that we can observe. But we might also need to consider what isnotvisible, for these absences and silences might expose some of the meanings contained within a source.

Consider a document that describes a particular sequence of events. Has the author of a document failed to note some information that we might have expected them to provide? And have they omitted an individual from their story? By answering these questions, we might expose some of the strategies that the author has employed to construct a particular argument about the significance of the episode.

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4. Be wary of anachronism – a value, meaning or idea that belongs to a different time

When we conduct historical research, we encounter terms and concepts that are familiar to us in the present. Yet we should not assume that these concepts possessed the same meaning in the past as they do now.

Consider, for instance, the term ‘freedom’. In the present, we tend to use this term to describe the absence of constraint. Yet this meaning is a modern invention. Prior to the 18th century, it was common for it to refer to the status of individuals who were not slaves. If we see the term appear in a source from the pre-modern moment, we need to avoid imposing a more recent meaning upon it.

One way to avoid anachronism is to place evidence in a wider context by looking at the environment in which it was produced. You might do this by making reference to other sources that were produced at the same time, or by thinking about the social or economic conditions that might have determined the way that contemporaries thought and behaved.

When we conduct historical research, we encounter terms and concepts that are familiar to us in the present. Yet we should not assume that these concepts possessed the same meaning in the past as they do now, says Dean Blackburn. (Image by Shawshots / Alamy Stock Photo)

5. Make use of online resources

Over the past 25 years, libraries, archives and museums around the world have been digitising collections and building websites around these new resources. These collections can be especially useful when you are in the early stages of planning your research. Pay particular attention to websites that bring together resources from across their collections. This can save time looking at lots of different organisations and give you an idea of where collections relevant to your interests exist. Europeana Collections, for instance, provides access to more than 50 million digitised items (books, music, sound, photographs, artworks and more) drawn from the collections of thousands of libraries, museums and archives across Europe.

Many organisations also compile thematic collections of digitised material that can provide useful starting points for further research. See, for instance, the British Library’s Discovering Literature website, which provides articles, biographies and digitised examples relating to UK 20th-century literature and drama, Gothic literature, Shakespeare and medieval literature.

If you are interested in beginning a research project, you may want to join Learning from the Past: A Guide for the Curious Researcher,a free online course that will be running from 3 September 2018. This course has been produced by the University of Nottingham, the University of Birmingham and the British Library, and by exploring the relationship between the past and the present, it will help learners to gain the skills they need to conduct an original research project.

Dean Blackburn is a lecturer in modern history at the University of Nottingham and Lead Educator on the free online FutureLearn course Learning from the Past: A Guide for the Curious ResearcherFutureLearn is a social learning platform wholly owned by The Open University. For more information, visit futurelearn.com.

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