Reading Historically

Reading is fundamental for everyone, but especially for historians.  We cannot create experiments or conduct interviews in the present, because the most essential characteristic of the information we evaluate is that it is in the past. Historians cannot re-shape, revisit, re-calculate or return to past events in any other way (“Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” or The Magic Treehouse notwithstanding), so we have to approach reading the documents historical actors left us very carefully.  Hence our decision to dedicate an entire section to this important skill.

The sections that follows explain several different types of reading (of both primary and secondary sources), including how to “read” sources that are not made of text.  The first and most basic type of reading that students and professional historians alike depend upon though is the work of other scholars. The most important historical scholarship can be found in monographs—book-length studies on discrete subjects—so our first and lengthiest chapter is devoted to helping you learn how to read these effectively.  We then turn to journal articles which are not only shorter, but also particularly accessible (given the prevalence of J-STOR and other databases) sources of scholarly information.

The last part of this section focuses exclusively on primary sources. Developing the ability to read and interpret a range of different primary sources is central to writing history; students assigned an historical research paper will want to pay particular attention to this aspect of historical analysis. Indeed, you may even want to return to these chapters more than once as you embark on your own research. It’s a dynamic process, however. Those best prepared to read primary sources already have developed a good basis in the context by reading historical scholarship in the subject. Wherever you enter a historical debate–with a well-written monograph or an enticing primary source–you’ll want to read effectively, so read on.


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How History is Made: A Student’s Guide to Reading, Writing, and Thinking in the Discipline Copyright © 2022 by Stephanie Cole; Kimberly Breuer; Scott W. Palmer; and Brandon Blakeslee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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