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 Keeping those collections safe may be an obsession for some, but without the physical items, whether they are books, historical documents, photos, furniture, clothing, etc., our past would only be a matter of “he said,” “she said.”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.

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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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