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  • The Princeton Guide to Historical Research

In this Book

The Princeton Guide to Historical Research

  • Zachary M. Schrag
  • Published by: Princeton University Press
  • Series: Skills for Scholars

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The essential handbook for doing historical research in the twenty-first century The Princeton Guide to Historical Research provides students, scholars, and professionals with the skills they need to practice the historian's craft in the digital age, while never losing sight of the fundamental values and techniques that have defined historical scholarship for centuries. Zachary Schrag begins by explaining how to ask good questions and then guides readers step-by-step through all phases of historical research, from narrowing a topic and locating sources to taking notes, crafting a narrative, and connecting one's work to existing scholarship. He shows how researchers extract knowledge from the widest range of sources, such as government documents, newspapers, unpublished manuscripts, images, interviews, and datasets. He demonstrates how to use archives and libraries, read sources critically, present claims supported by evidence, tell compelling stories, and much more. Featuring a wealth of examples that illustrate the methods used by seasoned experts, The Princeton Guide to Historical Research reveals that, however varied the subject matter and sources, historians share basic tools in the quest to understand people and the choices they made.

  • Offers practical step-by-step guidance on how to do historical research, taking readers from initial questions to final publication
  • Connects new digital technologies to the traditional skills of the historian
  • Draws on hundreds of examples from a broad range of historical topics and approaches
  • Shares tips for researchers at every skill level

Table of Contents

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  • Title Page, Copyright, Dedication
  • Introduction: History Is for Everyone
  • Part I. Definitions
  • Chapter 1. Defining History
  • Chapter 2. Historians' Ethics
  • Part II. Questions
  • Chapter 3. Asking Questions
  • Chapter 4. Research Design
  • Part III. Sources
  • Chapter 5. Sources: An Introduction
  • pp. 103-119
  • Chapter 6. Texts as Sources
  • pp. 120-153
  • Chapter 7. Sources beyond Traditional Texts
  • pp. 154-171
  • Chapter 8. Finding Sources
  • pp. 172-185
  • Chapter 9. Archival Research
  • pp. 186-207
  • Chapter 10. Interpreting Sources
  • pp. 208-224
  • Part IV. Projects
  • Chapter 11. Project Management
  • pp. 227-245
  • Chapter 12. Taking Notes
  • pp. 246-275
  • Chapter 13. Organization
  • pp. 276-308
  • Part V. Stories
  • Chapter 14. Storytelling
  • pp. 311-340
  • Chapter 15. Style
  • pp. 341-376
  • Chapter 16. Publication
  • pp. 377-400
  • Acknowledgments
  • pp. 401-402
  • pp. 403-414

Additional Information

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Introduction to Historical Research : Home

  • Archival sources
  • Multimedia sources
  • Newspapers and other periodicals
  • Biographical Information
  • Government documents

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Subject Librarian Directory Subject-specialist/ liaison librarians are willing to help you with anything from coming up with research strategies to locating sources.

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This guide is an introduction to selected resources available for historical research.  It covers both primary sources (such as diaries, letters, newspaper articles, photographs, government documents and first-hand accounts) and secondary materials (such as books and articles written by historians and devoted to the analysis and interpretation of historical events and evidence).

"Research in history involves developing an understanding of the past through the examination and interpretation of evidence. Evidence may exist in the form of texts, physical remains of historic sites, recorded data, pictures, maps, artifacts, and so on. The historian’s job is to find evidence, analyze its content and biases, corroborate it with further evidence, and use that evidence to develop an interpretation of past events that holds some significance for the present.

Historians use libraries to

  • locate primary sources (first-hand information such as diaries, letters, and original documents) for evidence
  • find secondary sources (historians’ interpretations and analyses of historical evidence)
  • verify factual material as inconsistencies arise"

( Research and Documentation in the Electronic Age, Fifth Edition, by Diana Hacker and Barbara Fister, Bedford/St. Martin, 2010)

This guide is meant to help you work through these steps.

Other helpful guides

This is a list of other historical research guides you may find helpful:

  • Learning Historical Research Learning to Do Historical Research: A Primer for Environmental Historians and Others by William Cronon and his students, University of Wisconsin A website designed as a basic introduction to historical research for anyone and everyone who is interested in exploring the past.
  • Reading, Writing, and Researching for History: A Guide for College Students by Patrick Rael, Bowdoin College Guide to all aspects of historical scholarship—from reading a history book to doing primary source research to writing a history paper.
  • Writing Historical Essays: A Guide for Undergraduates Rutgers History Department guide to writing historical essays
  • History Study Guides History study guides created by the Carleton College History Department

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On Historians

On Historians

Reappraisals of Some of the Masters of Modern History

J. H. Hexter

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ISBN 9780674634275

Publication date: 01/01/1986

J. H. Hexter, one of the nation’s most distinguished historians, reflects on some major historical works and their authors: Carl Becker, Wallace Ferguson, Hiram Hayden, Fernand Braudel, Lawrence Stone, Christopher Hill, and J. G. A. Pocock. The nature and condition of historical proof are Hexter’s continual concerns as he examines the varying interpretations of history in early modern times, probing each thesis and testing it by marshaling the evidence offered in its support and counter-evidence that displays its vulnerability. Writing with pungency and wit, Hexter engages the reader with his authoritative and often controversial frameworks of historical truth.

His great skills are those of a duelist… He is indeed a master of the lethal counter-example, capable of skewering entire theoretical structures with a sudden thrust of apparently effortless learning. —New York Review of Books
Hexter…is a pugnacious optimist, with a devout belief in historical objectivity and in professional history… His most recent volume…underscores once again the pivotal function of criticism…full of glittering observations on the historian’s craft. —Ethics
Hexter writes (and thinks) so energetically as to give his essays an edge that makes them powerful. —Queen’s Quarterly

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Princeton University Library

Finding scholarly literature on a topic in history, introduction, finding books, finding journal articles.

  • Finding bibliographies
  • Historiography for beginners
  • Finding book reviews

Librarian for History and African American Studies

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Whatever your topic, you will want to begin by finding out what other historians have had to say about it. This web page presents some strategies for finding the scholarly literature on a topic in history, and some other tools that can help you decide what to read.

Most historians publish their work in books. So, for many topics in history, your best starting point is a good recent scholarly book. The easiest way to find that book is to ask someone else who is knowledgeable about your topic -- for example, your junior seminar instructor or spring JP advisor. But a thorough search of the library catalog is also essential. Here are some tips on finding books about historical topics in library catalogs. 

  • Identify the Library of Congress Subject Heading for your topic, and use it in a subject search. You can look up LC Subject Headings in the big red books in the Trustee Reading Room (and elsewhere in the library). You can also look up a known book on your topic and check the long view for the subject headings assigned to that book.
  • Use the word " history " as part of a keyword search.
  • To find material about a person, an government agency, or an organization, search for it as a subject
  • To limit your search results to English-language materials, "Set Limits" before searching.
  • Didn't find enough? Expand your search in (or for a different interface, Worldcat) to identify items not held by Princeton, then use Borrow Direct or Interlibrary loan to get the books you discover there.

Assessing what you find -- is this book worth your time?

  • Who is the author? Is he/she associated with an academic institution?
  • Who is the publisher? Most good history books are published by academic presses, e.g. Princeton University Press or Oxford University Press.
  • When was the book published? Your first choice will probably be a book published in the last ten years or so, because a recent book will refer to all the previous work on your topic. But some older books are still very valuable, so do not worry if the most recent book you can find on your topic was published long ago.
  • Does the book include the scholarly apparatus that will enable you to verify the author's work? Look for footnotes or endnotes plus a bibliography. A book with no notes or bibliography will not be helpful to you at this stage of your research.

Once you have a book in hand, read it. Alas, there are no shortcuts to this part of the research process.

While books are very important, historians also publish their work in articles in academic journals. And the easiest way to find journal articles is to search a bibliographic database that covers your topic:

  • America: History and Life with Full Text This link opens in a new window Indexes books and journal articles on the history of the United States and Canada from prehistory to the present. 1954+ more... less... Print predecessor Writings on American History covering 1904-1954 is in Firestone's General & Humanities Reference (DR) Z1236.L331.
  • Historical Abstracts with Full Text This link opens in a new window Indexes books and journal articles on the history of the world (excluding the U.S. and Canada) from 1450 to the present. Index 1954+
  • Next: Finding bibliographies >>
  • Last Updated: Dec 19, 2023 1:33 PM
  • URL:
  • Harvard Library
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Library Research Guide for History

Getting what you need, general information.

  • Newsletter October 2023
  • Exploring Your Topic
  • HOLLIS (and other) Catalogs
  • Outline of Primary Sources for History
  • Finding Online Sources: Detailed Instructions
  • Document Collections/Microfilm
  • Religious Periodicals
  • Personal Writings/Speeches
  • Oral History and Interviews
  • News Sources
  • Archives and Manuscripts
  • Government Archives (U.S.)
  • U.S. Government Documents
  • Foreign Government & International Organization Documents
  • French Legislative Debates/Documents
  • State and City Documents
  • Historical Statistics/Data
  • GIS Mapping
  • Public Opinion
  • City Directories
  • Policy Literature, Working Papers, Think Tank Reports (Grey Literature)
  • Technical Reports (Grey Literature)
  • Country Information
  • Corporate Annual Reports
  • US Elections
  • Travel Writing/Guidebooks
  • Missionary Records
  • Reference Sources
  • Harvard Museums
  • Boston-Area Repositories
  • Citing Sources & Organizing Research
  • Newsletter January 2011
  • Newsletter June 2012
  • Newsletter August 2012
  • Newsletter December 2012
  • Newsletter June 2013
  • Newsletter August 2013
  • Newsletter January 2014
  • Newsletter June 2014
  • Newsletter August 2014
  • Newsletter January 2015
  • Newsletter June 2015
  • Newsletter August 2015
  • Newsletter January 2016
  • Newsletter June 2016
  • Newsletter August 2016
  • Newsletter January 2017
  • Newsletter June 2017
  • Newsletter August 2017
  • Newsletter January 2018
  • Newsletter June 2018
  • Newsletter August 2018
  • Newsletter June 2019
  • Newsletter August 2019
  • Newsletter December 2019
  • Newsletter March 2021
  • Newsletter October 2021
  • Newsletter May 2022
  • Newsletter February2023
  • Exploring Special Collections at Harvard

Fred Burchsted and Anna Esty

Fred Burchsted & Anna Assogba

Research Librarians

We are always happy to give you a tour of Widener and an orientation to our catalog, HOLLIS, and our other resources. Our emails are below.

This guide is intended as a point of departure for research in history.  We also have a more selective guide with major resources only: Introductory Library Research Guide for History .

  • Finding Primary Sources Online  offers methods for finding digital libraries and digital collections on the open Web   and for finding Digital Libraries/Collections by Region or Language .
  • Online Primary Source Collections for History  lists digital collections at Harvard and beyond by topic

Please feel free to email us with questions. We can make an appointment for you to come in, and we can talk at length about your project.

  • Anna Assogba ([email protected]) Research Librarian and Liaison to the Department of History, Lamont Library (With particular knowledge of Zotero and other citation management systems).
  • Fred Burchsted  ([email protected]) Research Librarian and Liaison to the Department of History, Widener Library.

How can you get your hands/eyes on material?

HOLLIS is the center of the Library ecosystem. This is often the best first step to see if we have something. In HOLLIS, click on "Online Access" or open the record and scroll down to the "Access Options" section. Check the HOLLIS section of this guide for more guidance.

Browser Plugins for Library Access

Harvard Library Bookmark and Lean Library plugins can help you find out if we have access to books and articles online.

Off-Site Storage

Books and other materials stored in facilities not on Harvard's main campus. Request this material through HOLLIS:

  • Select "Request Pick Up" in the Access section of the HOLLIS Record, then enter your Harvard Key.
  • A drop down menu will allow you to choose delivery location. Sometimes there is a single delivery option. Submit your request.
  • You will receive an email usually next business day (not weekends or holidays) morning. Item is usually ready for pick-up in mid-afternoon. 

Sometimes Offsite storage material is in-library use only. For Widener, this is the Widener secure reading room on the 1st floor (formerly the Periodicals Room). Most Offsite storage material is available for scanning via Scan & Deliver (see below). 

Scan & Deliver/Interlibrary Loan

Use Scan & Deliver/Interlibrary Loan to request PDFs of articles and book chapters from HOLLIS when you cannot get online access. Limit: 2 chapters from a book or 2 articles from a journal.

Interlibrary Loan

Request materials from other libraries via InterLibrary Loan :

  • Some non-Harvard special collections may be willing and able to scan material (usually for a fee). Our Interlibrary Loan department will place the request and help with the cost (there is a cap).
  • Contact the other repository to see if they're able to scan what you need. Get a price estimate for the material and the exact details (such as: Box 77 folder 4. This information is often available in Finding Aids).
  • Fill in what you can (put in N/A if the field is inapplicable) with the price and other information in the Comments box.
  • This will get the process going and ILL will get back to you if they need more information or to discuss the price.


Borrow Direct allows Harvard students, faculty, and staff to request items from other libraries for delivery to Harvard within 4 business days. If the item you need is not available, try searching our partner institutions' collections in BorrowDirect.

Purchase Request

If there are materials you'd like to see added to the library's collections, submit a purchase request and we will look into acquiring it. We can buy both physical and electronic copies of materials; specify if have a preference.

Special Collections

Special Collections are rare, unique, primary source materials in the library's collections. To access, look for "Request to Scan or Visit" in HOLLIS (to place a scanning request) or contact the repository directly. Most of our larger archival collections are able to provide scans.

Carrels at Widener Library

Graduate students and visiting scholars are eligible to have a carrel in the Widener Library stacks. Start the process with the  carrel request form . (If you do this right at the start of the semester, it may take a few weeks before you receive confirmation.) Materials from the Widener stacks, including non-circulating materials like bound periodicals, can be checked out to your carrel.

Ivy Plus Privileges

Our partnership with BorrowDirect allows physical access to libraries of fellow Ivy Plus institutions: Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Duke University, Johns Hopkins University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton University, Stanford University, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University.

Help with Digital Projects

The Digital Scholarship Support Group offers workshops and support to faculty, students, and staff interested in digital research methods.  See also   GIS Mapping Resources  and  Visualization Support .

  • Other Subject Guides
  • Current Awareness Resources

More guides are available via the  Harvard Library Research Guides site

Finding Book Reviews

Finding Dissertations and Theses

Finding Harvard Library's Unique or Distinctive Primary Sources: Original and Digital

Guide to Research in History of Art & Architecture

Library Research Guide for Book History

Library Research Guide for British Colonial and Foreign Relations Sources

Research Guide for Primary Sources on Civil Rights

Inter Libros: Research Guide for Classics, Byzantine, & Medieval Studies

Literary Research in Harvard Libraries

Library Research Guide for American Material Culture  (This is in an early stage of development)

Middle East and Islamic Studies Library Resources

Music 219r: American Music , Library Guide

Library Research Guide for HIST 1006: Native American and Indigenous Studies

Library Research Guide for the History of Science

Library Research Guide for History 97g: "What is Legal History ?"

Library Research Guide for U.S. Foreign Relations

Library Research Guide for Global History

Library Research Guide for HIST 2256: Digital Archives: Europe and European Empires

Library Research Guide for Educating for American Democracy

Library Research Guide for American Studies

Library Research Guide for Latin American Studies

Germanic Languages and Literatures

Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Harvard  (See Research Contacts at bottom of left hand column)

Library Research Guide for South Asian Studies

Library Research Guide for HIST 1037: Modern Southeast Asia

Research Guides at Other Institutions

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To find new Harvard E-Resources.Go to  Cross-Search in Harvard Libraries E-Resources  and choose the Quick Set: New E-Resources. This operates oddly, you sometimes have to select one of the E-Resources displayed, then close the resulting page to see the whole list of new E-Resources. This list displays some but not all new E-Resources.

The following history library blogs list new history resources:

  • Reviews in History
  • University of Washington
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Issue Cover

Sara Charles Claire Langhamer

About the journal

Published since 1923,  Historical Research , flagship publication of the  Institute of Historical Research , is a leading generalist history journal, covering the global history of the early middle ages to the twenty-first century...

White filing cabinet

Classic articles from the recent archives

The new virtual issue from Historical Research shines a light on some of the classic articles from the journal’s recent archive. It features some of the most read and most cited articles from the journal’s archives and covers a wide range of topics of perennial interest to both historians and to a wider readership.

Browse the virtual issue  

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2020 Historical Research lecture, video now available

The video of this year's lecture -- 'Writing histories of 2020' -- held on 29 July, is now available. With panellists Professors Jo Fox, Claire Langhamer, Kevin Siena and Richard Vinen who discuss historians' responses to COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter.

Watch the video of the 2020 lecture


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Join the mailing list

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IHR guide to free research resources

From April 2020, the Institute of Historical Research has created a listing of free research materials for historians currently unable to access libraries and archives. The list is regularly extended as researchers offer new suggestions.

Access the resources

Latest articles

Latest tweets, on history blog, emotional history and the bibliography of british and irish history (bbih) , hear from our 2022/23 interns, student testimonials – ihr london summer school 2023: secret london, learning from the windrush scandal oral history archives, place-based public history in the highlands and islands , the annual pollard prize, about the prize.

The Pollard Prize is awarded annually for the best paper presented at an Institute of Historical Research seminar by a postgraduate student or by a researcher within one year of completing the PhD. The prize is supported by Oxford University Press.

Find out more about the prize and eligibility requirements on the IHR website .

2021 prize winners

Congratulations to Merve Fejzula for winning the Annual Pollard Prize for 2021 with their paper 'Toward a History of Intellectual Labor: Gender, Negritude, and the Black Public Sphere.' Congratulations also to runner up Lucy Clarke  for their paper '"I say I must for I am the King’s shrieve": magistrates invoking the monarch’s name in 1 Henry VI (1592) and The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntingdon (1598)'.

Both papers will be published in  Historical Research  in due course.


Institute of Historical Research

The Institute of Historical Research is the UK's national centre for history, dedicated to supporting historians of all kinds.

Find out more about IHR


Reviews in History

Launched in 1996, Reviews in History now contains more than 2200 reviews, published monthly and are freely accessible as Open Access. Reviews are written by specialists in the field and all authors reviewed have an opportunity to respond.

Explore the latest reviews


On History  blog

Explore news, articles, and research from  On History , a digital magazine curated and published by the Institute of Historical Research.

View the latest posts

IHR Strategt

The IHR’s new mission and strategy, 2020-2025

The IHR is pleased to launch its new mission and strategy, setting out the values and vision for the IHR in the coming years.

Read the strategy

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The Historian's Toolbox: A Student's Guide to the Theory and Craft of History

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research for historians book

The Historian's Toolbox: A Student's Guide to the Theory and Craft of History 4th Edition

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  • Book Description
  • Editorial Reviews

The Historian’s Toolbox introduces students to the theory, craft, and methods of history and equips them with a series of tools to research and understand the past. Written in an engaging and entertaining style, and filled with fascinating examples, this best-selling "how to" book opens up an exciting world behind historical research and writing.

This fourth edition expands the repertory of tools and techniques available to students entering the workshop of history. These include materials on the Kennedy assassination, the litigation of Van Gogh’s Night Café , local town histories, contemporary history, Twitter, and the contemplation of the end of history as well as the Sixth Extinction in a new epilogue. The book demonstrates the relevance and expanding possibilities of the study of history in our cacophonous information age of tweetstorms and fake news; it emphasises the increasing value of critical thinking, facts and evidence in the face of political lies and conspiracy theories. Material added to the fourth edition will resonate with a new generation of computer-literate readers in the face of climate change.

The Historian’s Toolbox continues to be a seminal text for supporting students throughout their study of history and an accessible teaching tool for instructors.

"The Historian's Toolbox is a quintessential guide that needs to be on the desk of every undergraduate student of history. The fourth edition incorporates new debates and tools for Digital Humanities."

Dr. Anjana Singh, Asst. Professor in Early Modern History, Department of History; University of Groningen, The Netherlands

About the Author

Robert C. Williams is Vail Professor of History Emeritus at Davidson College. He has taught Russian, European and American history at Williams and Bates Colleges and at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including Russian Art and American Money (1980), nominated by Harvard University Press for the Pulitzer Prize.

  • ISBN-10 1138632171
  • ISBN-13 978-1138632172
  • Edition 4th
  • Publication date December 12, 2019
  • Language English
  • Dimensions 6 x 0.48 x 9 inches
  • Print length 198 pages
  • See all details

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  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Routledge; 4th edition (December 12, 2019)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 198 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1138632171
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1138632172
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 9.6 ounces
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 6 x 0.48 x 9 inches
  • #47 in Slavery & Emancipation History
  • #430 in History (Books)
  • #3,002 in Military History (Books)

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About the author

Robert c. williams.

Robert C. Williams (1938- )is a modern Russian historian. He has taught history

at Williams College, Washington University in St. Louis, Davidson College and

Bates College. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1966, and Harvard

University Press nominated his Russian Art and American Money (1980) for the

Pulitzer Prize. He has also published biographies of Klaus Fuchs and Horace

Greeley, along with monographs on the Russian emigration to Germany after 1917,

the Russian avant-garde, Lenin and his Bolshevik critics and (with Philip L.

Cantelon) the Department of Energy at Three Mile Island. He is a founding

member of History Associates Incorporated in Rockville, Maryland.

Williams has also written histories of two Maine towns, Lovell and Topsham,

where he has resided, and served as a board of trustees member at Wesleyan

University and Agnes Scott College. At Davidson College, he served as Dean of

Faculty/VPAA from 1986 to 2003. In Lovell, he served as moderator of the

Lovell UCC and chair of the Charlotte Hobbs Memorial Library board.

He and his wife, Ann Kingman Williams, have three children, two dogs and

three cats. Williams is an avid hiker, tennis and ping-pong player,and persists

in doing history. His books on the "historian's toolbox" and the "forensic

historian" are grounded in his love of both history and classroom teaching.

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Tools and techniques for historical research

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Research guide

If you are just starting out in HPS, this will be the first time for many years – perhaps ever – that you have done substantial library or museum based research. The number of general studies may seem overwhelming, yet digging out specific material relevant to your topic may seem like finding needles in a haystack. Before turning to the specific entries that make up this guide, there are a few general points that apply more widely.

Planning your research

Because good research and good writing go hand in hand, probably the single most important key to successful research is having a good topic. For that, all you need at the beginning are two things: (a) a problem that you are genuinely interested in and (b) a specific issue, controversy, technique, instrument, person, etc. that is likely to offer a fruitful way forward for exploring your problem. In the early stages, it's often a good idea to be general about (a) and very specific about (b). So you might be interested in why people decide to become doctors, and decide to look at the early career of a single practitioner from the early nineteenth century, when the evidence for this kind of question happens to be unusually good. You can get lots of advice from people in the Department about places to look for topics, especially if you combine this with reading in areas of potential interest. Remember that you're more likely to get good advice if you're able to mesh your interests with something that a potential supervisor knows about. HPS is such a broad field that it's impossible for any department to cover all aspects of it with an equal degree of expertise. It can be reassuring to know that your topic will evolve as your research develops, although it is vital that you establish some basic parameters relatively quickly. Otherwise you will end up doing the research for two, three or even four research papers or dissertations, when all you need is the material for one.

Before beginning detailed work, it's obviously a good idea to read some of the secondary literature surrounding your subject. The more general books are listed on the reading lists for the Part II lecture courses, and some of the specialist literature is listed in these research guides. This doesn't need to involve an exhaustive search, at least not at this stage, but you do need to master the fundamentals of what's been done if you're going to be in a position to judge the relevance of anything you find. If there are lectures being offered in your topic, make sure to attend them; and if they are offered later in the year, try to see if you can obtain a preliminary bibliography from the lecturer.

After that, it's usually a good idea to immerse yourself in your main primary sources as soon as possible. If you are studying a museum object, this is the time to look at it closely; if you're writing about a debate, get together the main papers relevant to it and give them a close read; if you're writing about a specific experiment, look at the published papers, the laboratory notebook, and the relevant letters. Don't spend hours in the early stages of research ferreting out hard-to-find details, unless you're absolutely positive that they are of central importance to the viability of your topic. Start to get a feel for the material you have, and the questions that might be explored further. Make an outline of the main topics that you hope to cover, organized along what you see as the most interesting themes (and remember, 'background' is not usually an interesting theme on its own).

At this stage, research can go in many different directions. At some point, you'll want to read more about the techniques other historians have used for exploring similar questions. Most fields have an established repertoire of ways of approaching problems, and you need to know what these are, especially if you decide to reject them. One of the advantages of an interdisciplinary field like HPS is that you are exposed to different and often conflicting ways of tackling similar questions. Remember that this is true within history itself, and you need to be aware of alternatives. This may well involve looking further afield, at classic books or articles that are not specifically on 'your' subject. For example, it may be that you could find some helpful ideas for a study of modern scientific portraiture in a book on the eighteenth century. The best books dealing with educational maps may not be on the astronomical ones you are studying, but on ones used for teaching classical geography. See where the inspiration for works you admire comes from, and have a look at the sources they have used. This will help you develop the kind of focussed questions that make for a successful piece of work.

As you develop an outline and begin to think through your topic in more detail, you'll be in good position to plan possible lines of research. Don't try to find out everything about your topic: pick those aspects that are likely to prove most fruitful for the direction your essay seems to be heading. For example, it may be worth spending a long time searching for biographical details about a person if their career and life are central to your analysis; but in many other cases, such issues may not be very important. If your interest is in the reception of a work, it is likely to be more fruitful to learn a lot about a few commentaries or reviews (where they appeared, who wrote them, and so forth) than to gather in randomly all the comments you can find.

Follow up hints in other people's footnotes. Works that are otherwise dull or outdated in approach are sometimes based on very solid research. One secondary reference to a crucial letter or newspaper article can save you hours of mindless trawling, and lead you straight to the information you need. Moreover, good historians often signal questions or sources that they think would be worth investigating further.

Remember that the best history almost always depends on developing new approaches and interpretations, not on knowing about a secret archive no one has used before. If you give your work time to develop, and combine research with writing, you will discover new sources, and (better still) a fresh importance for material that has supposedly been known for a long time. As you become familiar with your topic, you are likely to find that evidence you dug out at the beginning of your project is much more significant than you thought it was. In historical research, the most important evidence often isn't sitting there on the surface – it's something you need to dig out through close reading and an understanding of the situation in which the document you are studying was written, or in which the object was produced. This is especially true of instruments, paintings and other non-textual sources.

Some standard reference works

Your research should become more focussed as time goes on. Don't just gather randomly: you should always have at least some idea of why you are looking for something, and what you might hope to find. Make guesses, follow up hunches, see if an idea you have has the possibility to work out. At the beginning, it can be valuable to learn the full range of what is available, but eventually you should be following up specific issues, a bit like a detective tracing the clues to a mystery. It is at this stage of research, which is often best done in conjunction with writing up sections of your project, that knowing where to find answers to specific questions is most useful. There is nothing more disheartening than spending a week to find a crucial fact, only to discover that it's been sitting on the shelf next to you all term. The Whipple has a wide variety of guides, biographical dictionaries and bibliographies, so spend a few minutes early on looking at the reference shelves.

Every major country has a national biographical dictionary (the new version of the British one is the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography , available 2004 online). For better-known scientists, a good place to start is Charles C. Gillispie (ed.) Dictionary of Scientific Biography (1970–1980). There are more specialized dictionaries for every scientific field, from entomology to astronomy. The University Library has a huge selection of biographical sources; ask your supervisor about the best ones for your purpose.

Preliminary searching for book titles and other bibliographical information is now often best done online, and every historian should know how to use the British Library's online search facility; COPAC (the UK national library database); and WorldCat (an international database). All of these are accessible through the HPS Whipple Library website (under 'other catalogues'). At the time of writing, the University Library is remains one of the few libraries of its size to have many of its records not available online, so remember that you have to check the green guard-book catalogues (and the supplementary catalogues) for most items published before 1977. It is hoped that this situation will be rectified soon. There are also numerous bibliographies for individual sciences and subjects, together with catalogues of relevant manuscripts. Most of these are listed elsewhere in this guide.

As questions arise, you will want to be able to access books and articles by other historians that touch upon your subject. There are many sources for this listed elsewhere in this guide, but you should definitely know about the Isis Current Bibliography and The Wellcome Bibliography for the History of Medicine . Both are available online, the former through the RLG History of Science, Technology and Medicine database, the latter through the website of the Wellcome Library.

Libraries and museums

Finally, a word in praise of libraries and museums. As the comments above make clear, the internet is invaluable for searching for specific pieces of information. If you need a bibliographical reference or a general reading list from a course at another university, it is an excellent place to begin. If you are looking for the source of an unidentified quotation, typing it into Google (or an appropriate database held by the University Library) will often turn up the source in seconds. Many academic journals are now online, as are the texts of many books, though not always in a paginated or citable form.

For almost all historical topics, however, libraries filled with printed books and journals will remain the principal tools for research, just as museums will continue to be essential to any work dealing with the material culture of past science. The reason for this is simple: what is on the internet is the result of decisions by people in the past decade, while libraries and museums are the product of a continuous history of collecting over several thousand years. Cambridge has some of the best collections for the history of science anywhere. Despite what is often said, this is not because of the famous manuscripts or showpiece books (these are mostly available in other ways), but because of the depth and range of its collections across the whole field. The Whipple Library is small and friendly, and has an unparalleled selection of secondary works selected over many years – don't just go for specific titles you've found in the catalogue, try browsing around, and ask the librarians for help if you can't see what you are looking for. Explore the Whipple Museum and talk to the curator and the staff. There are rich troves of material in these departmental collections, on topics ranging from phrenology and microscopy to the early development of pocket calculators. Become familiar with what the University Library has to offer: it is large and sometimes idiosyncratic, but worth getting to know well if you are at all serious about research. It is a fantastic instrument for studying the human past – the historian's equivalent of CERN or the Hubble Telescope. And all you need to get in is a student ID.

Further reading

Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. William, The Craft of Research , 2nd ed. (University of Chicago Press, 2003).

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Skip to Main Content of WWII

10 notable world war ii books of 2021.

Must-reads of 2021 picked by historians and scholars in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy. 

research for historians book

Drunk on Genocide: Alcohol and Mass Murder in Nazi Germany

by Edward B Westermann

research for historians book

Ed Westermann is a highly prolific scholar and author on the history of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. His latest, Drunk on Genocide , explores the intersection between alcohol, images of masculinity, and German atrocity on the Eastern Front. He is struck by the number of times that alcohol figures in the mass murder of Jewish victims. The schnapps flowed freely before, during, and after the roundups and shootings, and some of the grisly scenes of sadism and torture carried out by drunken SS-men or German soldiers simply beggar the imagination. Of course, we might say that another kind of intoxication is at work here, with Hitler and the German people alike being drunk on visions of dominance, empire, and racial superiority.    The book is perhaps best read in concert with Norman Ohler’s Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich . On one level, it’s comforting to hear that men have to be in a drunken stupor to commit horrific crimes like the Holocaust. We should also realize, however, that we live in a world in which drugs and alcohol are available everywhere, in the tendency to hate all too common.

Recommendation by Rob Citino, PhD Samuel Zemurray Stone Senior Historian 

by Stephanie D Hinnershitz

research for historians book

This book by my friend and colleague Stephanie Hinnershitz is simply one of the best and most important books of 2021. Her research yields a number of vital findings, but two stand out here. First, she clarifies that what happened to the roughly 120,000 Japanese Americans impacted by Executive Order 9066 was “incarceration,” not “internment”—the traditional, yet quite problematic, term more familiar to us. Second, she demonstrates how the system of relocation and incarceration devised by the American state for Japanese Americans depended on what she calls “coerced labor.” Japanese American Incarceration  will be the reference point for future discussions of this crucial subject in the history of the United States and World War II.  

Recommendation by Jason Dawsey, PhD Research Historian  

by Enzo Traverso

research for historians book

Cornell University intellectual historian Enzo Traverso has produced a remarkable series of studies of modern European politics and social thought. Revolution: An Intellectual History , the most recent addition to this body of work, focuses on “revolution for better or worse” in Europe since the French Revolution (with selective attention to revolutions outside of the European continent). Using Walter Benjamin’s notion of “dialectical images,” Traverso clearly sympathizes with the emancipatory aspects of modern revolutions (which he distinguishes from rebellions), while not romanticizing them. Richly illustrated, Traverso’s book is a demanding, yet quite rewarding exploration of the iconography, experience, and conceptualization of revolution. The book will and should elicit lengthy commentary and debate on a subject that is far from exhausted.  

Recommendation by Jason Dawsey, PhD Research Historian

The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell

research for historians book

Crafted as part of his Revisionist History  podcast, Malcolm Gladwell’s The Bomber Mafia  provides a deeply provocative exploration into the 1945 fire-bombing of Tokyo. In so doing, Gladwell exposes a broader audience to strategic bombing, wartime decision-making, and the events leading up to the end of World War II that have long been topics of debate among historians. The book is a quick read, but the lengthier quotations are most effective in the podcast. 

Leaders, their ideas, and their character are central to Gladwell’s story, as are the moral implications of wartime decisions. In addition to the inventors and chemists that played a role in US efforts to hasten the end of the war, the treatment of General Curtis LeMay and his predecessor Haywood Hansell, central figures in the story, are particularly insightful. Gladwell’s insights into the cognitive dissonance of what other American senior leaders, such as Secretary of War Henry Stimson or General Joseph Stilwell, understood LeMay was doing to Japanese cities and civilian populations are particularly perceptive. 

Recommendation by Michael Bell, PhD Executive Director, Institute for the Study of War and Democracy  

Island Infernos: The US Army’s Pacific War Odyssey, 1944 by John C McManus

research for historians book

John C. McManus’s Island Infernos  is the second installment of a trilogy detailing US Army operations in the Pacific in 1944 (the preceding work won the Gilder Lehrman Prize for Military History). Although not the author’s main objective, the series acts as something of a historical corrective. Popular memory suggests the Marine Corps stood alone against Japanese forces, fighting their way across numerous remote islands. McManus shows the extent to which the Army also was responsible for the American victory in the Pacific. In 1944, a make-or-break year for Allied forces against Japan, soldiers engaged in intense amphibious operations while support forces managed a massive logistical effort across almost a third of the globe’s surface. Any reader interested in a fuller picture of the Pacific War should pick up McManus’s two volumes. His attention to detail, archival research, and mastery of the literature is peerless. 

Recommendation by Adam Givens, PhD DPAA Research Partner Fellow  

When France Fell: The Vichy Crisis and the Fate of the Anglo-American Alliance by Michael S Neiberg

research for historians book

Was America’s partnership with Vichy France a necessary evil to stave off further Nazi encroachment in Europe and beyond, or a desperate and panicked diplomatic move undertaken by US policy makers who realized in 1940 how underprepared the nation was for a potential global war with Germany? Approaching the Vichy-American collaboration as “necessary pragmatism” overshadows how dangerous it was for Anglo-American relations, and Michael Neiberg’s use of the warped memory of US-Vichy cooperation makes his book a great introduction to the reality of this complex moment in WWII history.

Recommendation by by Stephanie Hinnershitz, PhD Research Historian

The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed by Wendy Lower

research for historians book

Wendy Lower’s book, The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed , investigates the history of the Holocaust as it unfolded in Ukraine in the summer and fall of 1941. By tracing the origins and context surrounding a photograph documenting the murder of a woman and her children in Miropol, Ukraine, Lower unleashes a powerful microhistory of the first phase of the Holocaust, or “the Holocaust by bullets.” Her fast-paced and gripping narrative incorporates her own experience in researching the family in the photo, the photographer, the perpetrators, and the killing site. In doing so, she offers important insights on issues surrounding conflicting local memories and the nuances of collaboration. More importantly, Lower successfully argues for the use of photography as vital historical evidence, but cautions that photos should be scrutinized as carefully as any other historical documentation. Readers interested in the Holocaust or the history of photography will find the book a well-written and detailed study that contributes to the historiography of mass murder and genocide during World War II. 

Recommendation by Jennifer Popowycz Leventhal Research Fellow

Divisions: A New History of Racism and Resistance in America’s World War II Military by Thomas A Guglielmo

research for historians book

Thomas Guglielmo’s book truly is a “new” history of how racism shaped the military experience for many minorities who served during World War II, and he uses one powerful phrase to describe this form of “Jim Crow militarism”: white supremacy. But what makes this book such an important read for anyone interested in WWII history is the story of the veterans who challenged this deeply rooted notion that White soldiers were naturally superior to non-White servicemembers and later shaped postwar social movements for equality and justice. 

Churchill, Master and Commander: Winston Churchill at War 1895-1945 by Anthony Tucker-Jones

research for historians book

Sir Winston is back, and this time he’s more dangerous than ever! While the appearance of a new book on Churchill might give some potential readers pause, given the already bulging library of books on Sir Winston, Master and Commander  works due to its razor-sharp focus. This is the story of Churchill as a warrior—fighting in them, writing about them, and eventually helping to direct the greatest one of them all.    While some of the episodes here might be familiar, such as his wartime disagreements with FDR over the Normandy invasion, many others will be revelatory, especially to US readers. Churchill’s service with the Malakand Field Force on the North West Frontier of the Indian Raj (1897), the great charge of the 21st Lancers at the battle of Omdurman in the Sudan in 1898 (the “last great cavalry charge in history,” as it’s often called), the Boer War in South Africa (1899-1902): Winston was in every one of them. In later years, he was a fiery advocate for intervention in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, and on multiple occasions he called for an invasion of Ireland to quell disturbances there. As a warrior, Churchill was larger than life, and in Anthony Tucker-Jones, a knowledgeable and erudite military historian, he has found a worthy chronicler.

X Troop: The Secret Jewish Commandos of World War II by Leah Garrett

research for historians book

Garrett, a Professor at Hunter College, has penned a unit history of the British No. 10 (Inter-Allied) Commando, 3 Troop—X Troop—and weaved into it the personal stories of the men who comprised it. What the reader is presented with is a beautiful tapestry of human suffering, resilience, and resistance. X Troop, made up of young, Jewish men who escaped Europe as the Nazis rose to power, is a story not often told in the broad library of WWII histories, a story where Jewish people act as their own liberators and strike back at the Third Reich.   Garrett’s deep research and investigation is mixed with a wonderful writing style, which leads to remarkable storytelling. From their individual escapes, to the unfortunate, but enlightening tales of antisemitism they faced in the UK and other areas, members of X Troop served throughout Europe—from Dieppe to D-Day to the Battle of the Scheldt, and then on to the liberation of their own homelands. 

Recommendation by Jeremy Collins Director of Conferences and Symposia

research for historians book

Museum Store

The Museum Store has hundreds of books on World War II, such as bestseller biographies and autographed copies. 

research for historians book

Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy

Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy is a national center for research, higher education, publications, and public programming.

Explore Further

WWII Air Medal.

The Air Medal: An Effort to Bolster Morale

Authorized during the one of most difficult periods during the air war, the Air Medal was an effort to rally the US Army Air Forces crews.

A B-17 Flying Fortress of the Eighth Airforce's 100th Bomb Group

The 'Bloody 100th' Bomb Group

The Eighth Air Force’s hard luck unit was filled with colorful personalities who made the unit one of the most storied of World War II.

The USS Arizona burning after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor

The Fallen Crew of the USS Arizona and Operation 85

The Operation 85 project aims to identify unknown servicemen who perished aboard the USS Arizona during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Montgomery Police Lieutenant D.H. Lacky fingerprinting Rosa Parks

'Maxwell Opened My Eyes' Rosa Parks: WWII Defense Worker

Before her historic protest in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rosa Parks was a Home Front worker at Maxwell Airfield.

A formation of Republic P-47s prowl for targets

Patchwork Plane: Building the P-47 Thunderbolt

Roughly 100 companies, coast to coast, helped Republic Aviation Corporation manufacture each P-47 Thunderbolt.

Chiang Kai-shek, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the Sextant Conference

The Cairo and Tehran Conferences

In a series of high-stakes strategic conferences in late 1943, the Allies made several key decisions that shaped wartime strategy, while reflecting the changing balance of power between the Allied nations and foreshadowing the postwar emergence of the bipolar world.

Martin B-26 Marauder named Heaven Can Wait meets its end

The Chopping Block: The Fate of Warplanes after WWII

After the war, hundreds of thousands of US warplanes remained—but the military needed only a fraction of them.

Geilenkirchen in ruins

Operation Clipper: The Fight for Geilenkirchen

Operation Clipper, an offensive to reduce the Geilenkirchen salient in Germany, highlighted the value of specialized tanks in a combined US-British operation.

History of the Book

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Journals for the study of book history

  • American Periodicals American Periodicals is an annual publication devoted exclusively to scholarship and criticism relating to American magazines and newspapers of all periods.
  • Book History Book History is a scholarly journal devoted to every aspect of the history of the book, broadly defined as the creation, dissemination, reception, and use of script, print, and mediacy.
  • The Bookman A magazine of the book trade, published from 1891 to 1934.
  • Huntington Library Quarterly Huntington Library Quarterly publishes articles on the literature, history, and art of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries in Britain and America.
  • Information & Culture (formerly Libraries & the Cultural Record) An interdisciplinary journal that explores the significance of collections of recorded knowledge – their creation, organization, preservation, and utilization – in the context of cultural and social history.
  • Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History Publishes several substantial articles in each volume with emphasis on the period of transition from manuscript to print. This annual's main focus is on English and Continental works produced from 1350 to 1550.
  • The Library The Library is the journal of the Bibliographical Society. All aspects of descriptive and historical bibliography come within its scope, including the general and economic history of the production and distribution of books, paper, printing types, illustration, and binding, as well as the transmission of texts and their authenticity.
  • Library & Information History Library & Information History is a fully-refereed, quarterly journal publishing articles of a high academic standard from international authors on all subjects and all periods relating to the history of libraries and librarianship and to the history of information, in its broadest sense.
  • Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America The journal of the Bibliographical Society of America. Publishes articles on the book and the manuscript as historical evidence.
  • Printing History Printing History, the biannual journal of the American Printing History Association, publishes scholarly articles on the history of printing, publishing, books, type, typography, paper and related industries.
  • Studies in Bibliography Each year Studies in Bibliography presents a wide range of scholarly articles on bibliography and textual criticism. Founded by Professor Fredson Bowers of the University of Virginia in 1948 as Papers of the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia.
  • Textual Cultures Formerly publishd as TEXT: An Interdisciplinary Annual of Textual Studies. Focuses on the field of textual studies and the notion of the diverse textual cultures.
  • Victorian Periodicals Review The only refereed journal that concentrates on the editorial and publishing history of Victorian periodicals, Victorian Periodicals Review (VPR) emphasizes the importance of periodicals and newspapers in the history and culture of Victorian Britain, Ireland, and the British Empire.

Databases for finding journal articles

  • America: History and Life with Full Text This link opens in a new window Indexes literature covering the history and culture of the United States and Canada, from prehistory to the present. The database indexes 1,700 journals and also includes citations and links to book and media reviews. Strong English-language journal coverage is balanced by an international perspective on topics and events, including abstracts in English of articles published in more than 40 languages. Publication dates of coverage: 1964 to present.
  • Arts and Humanities Citation Index (A&HCI) This link opens in a new window This database indexes about 1,700 arts and humanities journals. Dates of coverage: 1975 to present. Adjust settings to expand your searching to include the Social Sciences Citation Index, the Science Citation Index, the Book Citation Index, and others.
  • Book History Online This link opens in a new window Book History Online (BHO) is a comprehensive international bibliography covering scholarly monographs, articles, and reviews in the fields of book and library history, focusing on the production and distribution of printed books in their economic and socio-cultural contexts, as well as their preservation and description. It is the online continuation of the Annual Bibliography of the History of the Printed Book and Libraries .
  • Historical Abstracts with Full Text (EBSCO) This link opens in a new window Covers the history of the world (excluding the United States and Canada) from 1450 to the present, including world history, military history, women's history, history of education, and more. Indexes more than 1,700 academic historical journals in over 40 languages. Publication dates of coverage: 1955 to present.
  • Literature Resource Center This link opens in a new window Literature Resource Center offers biographical and other background information for research on literary topics, authors, and their works. Its coverage includes all genres and disciplines, all time periods, and all regions of the world. Literature Resource Center's content comes from the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Contemporary Authors, Contemporary Literary Criticism, and more, including full text of selected poems, plays, and short stories.

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A Step-by-Step Guide to Doing Historical Research [without getting hysterical!] In addition to being a scholarly investigation, research is a social activity intended to create new knowledge. Historical research is your informed response to the questions that you ask while examining the record of human experience. These questions may concern such elements as looking at an event or topic, examining events that lead to the event in question, social influences, key players, and other contextual information. This step-by-step guide progresses from an introduction to historical resources to information about how to identify a topic, craft a thesis and develop a research paper. Table of contents: The Range and Richness of Historical Sources Secondary Sources Primary Sources Historical Analysis What is it? Who, When, Where, What and Why: The Five "W"s Topic, Thesis, Sources Definition of Terms Choose a Topic Craft a Thesis Evaluate Thesis and Sources A Variety of Information Sources Take Efficient Notes Note Cards Thinking, Organizing, Researching Parenthetical Documentation Prepare a Works Cited Page Drafting, Revising, Rewriting, Rethinking For Further Reading: Works Cited Additional Links So you want to study history?! Tons of help and links Slatta Home Page Use the Writing and other links on the lefhand menu I. The Range and Richness of Historical Sources Back to Top Every period leaves traces, what historians call "sources" or evidence. Some are more credible or carry more weight than others; judging the differences is a vital skill developed by good historians. Sources vary in perspective, so knowing who created the information you are examining is vital. Anonymous doesn't make for a very compelling source. For example, an FBI report on the antiwar movement, prepared for U.S. President Richard Nixon, probably contained secrets that at the time were thought to have affected national security. It would not be usual, however, for a journalist's article about a campus riot, featured in a local newspaper, to leak top secret information. Which source would you read? It depends on your research topic. If you're studying how government officials portrayed student activists, you'll want to read the FBI report and many more documents from other government agencies such as the CIA and the National Security Council. If you're investigating contemporary opinion of pro-war and anti-war activists, local newspaper accounts provide a rich resource. You'd want to read a variety of newspapers to ensure you're covering a wide range of opinions (rural/urban, left/right, North/South, Soldier/Draft-dodger, etc). Historians classify sources into two major categories: primary and secondary sources. Secondary Sources Back to Top Definition: Secondary sources are created by someone who was either not present when the event occurred or removed from it in time. We use secondary sources for overview information, to familiarize ourselves with a topic, and compare that topic with other events in history. In refining a research topic, we often begin with secondary sources. This helps us identify gaps or conflicts in the existing scholarly literature that might prove promsing topics. Types: History books, encyclopedias, historical dictionaries, and academic (scholarly) articles are secondary sources. To help you determine the status of a given secondary source, see How to identify and nagivate scholarly literature . Examples: Historian Marilyn Young's (NYU) book about the Vietnam War is a secondary source. She did not participate in the war. Her study is not based on her personal experience but on the evidence she culled from a variety of sources she found in the United States and Vietnam. Primary Sources Back to Top Definition: Primary sources emanate from individuals or groups who participated in or witnessed an event and recorded that event during or immediately after the event. They include speeches, memoirs, diaries, letters, telegrams, emails, proclamations, government documents, and much more. Examples: A student activist during the war writing about protest activities has created a memoir. This would be a primary source because the information is based on her own involvement in the events she describes. Similarly, an antiwar speech is a primary source. So is the arrest record of student protesters. A newspaper editorial or article, reporting on a student demonstration is also a primary source. II. Historical Analysis What is it? Back to Top No matter what you read, whether it's a primary source or a secondary source, you want to know who authored the source (a trusted scholar? A controversial historian? A propagandist? A famous person? An ordinary individual?). "Author" refers to anyone who created information in any medium (film, sound, or text). You also need to know when it was written and the kind of audience the author intend to reach. You should also consider what you bring to the evidence that you examine. Are you inductively following a path of evidence, developing your interpretation based on the sources? Do you have an ax to grind? Did you begin your research deductively, with your mind made up before even seeing the evidence. Historians need to avoid the latter and emulate the former. To read more about the distinction, examine the difference between Intellectual Inquirers and Partisan Ideologues . In the study of history, perspective is everything. A letter written by a twenty- year old Vietnam War protestor will differ greatly from a letter written by a scholar of protest movements. Although the sentiment might be the same, the perspective and influences of these two authors will be worlds apart. Practicing the " 5 Ws " will avoid the confusion of the authority trap. Who, When, Where, What and Why: The Five "W"s Back to Top Historians accumulate evidence (information, including facts, stories, interpretations, opinions, statements, reports, etc.) from a variety of sources (primary and secondary). They must also verify that certain key pieces of information are corroborated by a number of people and sources ("the predonderance of evidence"). The historian poses the " 5 Ws " to every piece of information he examines: Who is the historical actor? When did the event take place? Where did it occur? What did it entail and why did it happen the way it did? The " 5 Ws " can also be used to evaluate a primary source. Who authored the work? When was it created? Where was it created, published, and disseminated? Why was it written (the intended audience), and what is the document about (what points is the author making)? If you know the answers to these five questions, you can analyze any document, and any primary source. The historian doesn't look for the truth, since this presumes there is only one true story. The historian tries to understand a number of competing viewpoints to form his or her own interpretation-- what constitutes the best explanation of what happened and why. By using as wide a range of primary source documents and secondary sources as possible, you will add depth and richness to your historical analysis. The more exposure you, the researcher, have to a number of different sources and differing view points, the more you have a balanced and complete view about a topic in history. This view will spark more questions and ultimately lead you into the quest to unravel more clues about your topic. You are ready to start assembling information for your research paper. III. Topic, Thesis, Sources Definition of Terms Back to Top Because your purpose is to create new knowledge while recognizing those scholars whose existing work has helped you in this pursuit, you are honor bound never to commit the following academic sins: Plagiarism: Literally "kidnapping," involving the use of someone else's words as if they were your own (Gibaldi 6). To avoid plagiarism you must document direct quotations, paraphrases, and original ideas not your own. Recycling: Rehashing material you already know thoroughly or, without your professor's permission, submitting a paper that you have completed for another course. Premature cognitive commitment: Academic jargon for deciding on a thesis too soon and then seeking information to serve that thesis rather than embarking on a genuine search for new knowledge. Choose a Topic Back to Top "Do not hunt for subjects, let them choose you, not you them." --Samuel Butler Choosing a topic is the first step in the pursuit of a thesis. Below is a logical progression from topic to thesis: Close reading of the primary text, aided by secondary sources Growing awareness of interesting qualities within the primary text Choosing a topic for research Asking productive questions that help explore and evaluate a topic Creating a research hypothesis Revising and refining a hypothesis to form a working thesis First, and most important, identify what qualities in the primary or secondary source pique your imagination and curiosity and send you on a search for answers. Bloom's taxonomy of cognitive levels provides a description of productive questions asked by critical thinkers. While the lower levels (knowledge, comprehension) are necessary to a good history essay, aspire to the upper three levels (analysis, synthesis, evaluation). Skimming reference works such as encyclopedias, books, critical essays and periodical articles can help you choose a topic that evolves into a hypothesis, which in turn may lead to a thesis. One approach to skimming involves reading the first paragraph of a secondary source to locate and evaluate the author's thesis. Then for a general idea of the work's organization and major ideas read the first and last sentence of each paragraph. Read the conclusion carefully, as it usually presents a summary (Barnet and Bedau 19). Craft a Thesis Back to Top Very often a chosen topic is too broad for focused research. You must revise it until you have a working hypothesis, that is, a statement of an idea or an approach with respect to the source that could form the basis for your thesis. Remember to not commit too soon to any one hypothesis. Use it as a divining rod or a first step that will take you to new information that may inspire you to revise your hypothesis. Be flexible. Give yourself time to explore possibilities. The hypothesis you create will mature and shift as you write and rewrite your paper. New questions will send you back to old and on to new material. Remember, this is the nature of research--it is more a spiraling or iterative activity than a linear one. Test your working hypothesis to be sure it is: broad enough to promise a variety of resources. narrow enough for you to research in depth. original enough to interest you and your readers. worthwhile enough to offer information and insights of substance "do-able"--sources are available to complete the research. Now it is time to craft your thesis, your revised and refined hypothesis. A thesis is a declarative sentence that: focuses on one well-defined idea makes an arguable assertion; it is capable of being supported prepares your readers for the body of your paper and foreshadows the conclusion. Evaluate Thesis and Sources Back to Top Like your hypothesis, your thesis is not carved in stone. You are in charge. If necessary, revise it during the research process. As you research, continue to evaluate both your thesis for practicality, originality, and promise as a search tool, and secondary sources for relevance and scholarliness. The following are questions to ask during the research process: Are there many journal articles and entire books devoted to the thesis, suggesting that the subject has been covered so thoroughly that there may be nothing new to say? Does the thesis lead to stimulating, new insights? Are appropriate sources available? Is there a variety of sources available so that the bibliography or works cited page will reflect different kinds of sources? Which sources are too broad for my thesis? Which resources are too narrow? Who is the author of the secondary source? Does the critic's background suggest that he/she is qualified? After crafting a thesis, consider one of the following two approaches to writing a research paper: Excited about your thesis and eager to begin? Return to the primary or secondary source to find support for your thesis. Organize ideas and begin writing your first draft. After writing the first draft, have it reviewed by your peers and your instructor. Ponder their suggestions and return to the sources to answer still-open questions. Document facts and opinions from secondary sources. Remember, secondary sources can never substitute for primary sources. Confused about where to start? Use your thesis to guide you to primary and secondary sources. Secondary sources can help you clarify your position and find a direction for your paper. Keep a working bibliography. You may not use all the sources you record, but you cannot be sure which ones you will eventually discard. Create a working outline as you research. This outline will, of course, change as you delve more deeply into your subject. A Variety of Information Sources Back to Top "A mind that is stretched to a new idea never returns to its original dimension." --Oliver Wendell Holmes Your thesis and your working outline are the primary compasses that will help you navigate the variety of sources available. In "Introduction to the Library" (5-6) the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers suggests you become familiar with the library you will be using by: taking a tour or enrolling for a brief introductory lecture referring to the library's publications describing its resources introducing yourself and your project to the reference librarian The MLA Handbook also lists guides for the use of libraries (5), including: Jean Key Gates, Guide to the Use of Libraries and Information Sources (7th ed., New York: McGraw, 1994). Thomas Mann, A Guide to Library Research Methods (New York: Oxford UP, 1987). Online Central Catalog Most libraries have their holdings listed on a computer. The online catalog may offer Internet sites, Web pages and databases that relate to the university's curriculum. It may also include academic journals and online reference books. Below are three search techniques commonly used online: Index Search: Although online catalogs may differ slightly from library to library, the most common listings are by: Subject Search: Enter the author's name for books and article written about the author. Author Search: Enter an author's name for works written by the author, including collections of essays the author may have written about his/her own works. Title Search: Enter a title for the screen to list all the books the library carries with that title. Key Word Search/Full-text Search: A one-word search, e.g., 'Kennedy,' will produce an overwhelming number of sources, as it will call up any entry that includes the name 'Kennedy.' To focus more narrowly on your subject, add one or more key words, e.g., "John Kennedy, Peace Corps." Use precise key words. Boolean Search: Boolean Search techniques use words such as "and," "or," and "not," which clarify the relationship between key words, thus narrowing the search. Take Efficient Notes Back to Top Keeping complete and accurate bibliography and note cards during the research process is a time (and sanity) saving practice. If you have ever needed a book or pages within a book, only to discover that an earlier researcher has failed to return it or torn pages from your source, you understand the need to take good notes. Every researcher has a favorite method for taking notes. Here are some suggestions-- customize one of them for your own use. Bibliography cards There may be far more books and articles listed than you have time to read, so be selective when choosing a reference. Take information from works that clearly relate to your thesis, remembering that you may not use them all. Use a smaller or a different color card from the one used for taking notes. Write a bibliography card for every source. Number the bibliography cards. On the note cards, use the number rather than the author's name and the title. It's faster. Another method for recording a working bibliography, of course, is to create your own database. Adding, removing, and alphabetizing titles is a simple process. Be sure to save often and to create a back-up file. A bibliography card should include all the information a reader needs to locate that particular source for further study. Most of the information required for a book entry (Gibaldi 112): Author's name Title of a part of the book [preface, chapter titles, etc.] Title of the book Name of the editor, translator, or compiler Edition used Number(s) of the volume(s) used Name of the series Place of publication, name of the publisher, and date of publication Page numbers Supplementary bibliographic information and annotations Most of the information required for an article in a periodical (Gibaldi 141): Author's name Title of the article Name of the periodical Series number or name (if relevant) Volume number (for a scholarly journal) Issue number (if needed) Date of publication Page numbers Supplementary information For information on how to cite other sources refer to your So you want to study history page . Note Cards Back to Top Take notes in ink on either uniform note cards (3x5, 4x6, etc.) or uniform slips of paper. Devote each note card to a single topic identified at the top. Write only on one side. Later, you may want to use the back to add notes or personal observations. Include a topical heading for each card. Include the number of the page(s) where you found the information. You will want the page number(s) later for documentation, and you may also want page number(s)to verify your notes. Most novice researchers write down too much. Condense. Abbreviate. You are striving for substance, not quantity. Quote directly from primary sources--but the "meat," not everything. Suggestions for condensing information: Summary: A summary is intended to provide the gist of an essay. Do not weave in the author's choice phrases. Read the information first and then condense the main points in your own words. This practice will help you avoid the copying that leads to plagiarism. Summarizing also helps you both analyze the text you are reading and evaluate its strengths and weaknesses (Barnet and Bedau 13). Outline: Use to identify a series of points. Paraphrase, except for key primary source quotations. Never quote directly from a secondary source, unless the precise wording is essential to your argument. Simplify the language and list the ideas in the same order. A paraphrase is as long as the original. Paraphrasing is helpful when you are struggling with a particularly difficult passage. Be sure to jot down your own insights or flashes of brilliance. Ralph Waldo Emerson warns you to "Look sharply after your thoughts. They come unlooked for, like a new bird seen on your trees, and, if you turn to your usual task, disappear...." To differentiate these insights from those of the source you are reading, initial them as your own. (When the following examples of note cards include the researcher's insights, they will be followed by the initials N. R.) When you have finished researching your thesis and you are ready to write your paper, organize your cards according to topic. Notecards make it easy to shuffle and organize your source information on a table-- or across the floor. Maintain your working outline that includes the note card headings and explores a logical order for presenting them in your paper. IV. Begin Thinking, Researching, Organizing Back to Top Don't be too sequential. Researching, writing, revising is a complex interactive process. Start writing as soon as possible! "The best antidote to writer's block is--to write." (Klauser 15). However, you still feel overwhelmed and are staring at a blank page, you are not alone. Many students find writing the first sentence to be the most daunting part of the entire research process. Be creative. Cluster (Rico 28-49). Clustering is a form of brainstorming. Sometimes called a web, the cluster forms a design that may suggest a natural organization for a paper. Here's a graphical depiction of brainstorming . Like a sun, the generating idea or topic lies at the center of the web. From it radiate words, phrases, sentences and images that in turn attract other words, phrases, sentences and images. Put another way--stay focused. Start with your outline. If clustering is not a technique that works for you, turn to the working outline you created during the research process. Use the outline view of your word processor. If you have not already done so, group your note cards according to topic headings. Compare them to your outline's major points. If necessary, change the outline to correspond with the headings on the note cards. If any area seems weak because of a scarcity of facts or opinions, return to your primary and/or secondary sources for more information or consider deleting that heading. Use your outline to provide balance in your essay. Each major topic should have approximately the same amount of information. Once you have written a working outline, consider two different methods for organizing it. Deduction: A process of development that moves from the general to the specific. You may use this approach to present your findings. However, as noted above, your research and interpretive process should be inductive. Deduction is the most commonly used form of organization for a research paper. The thesis statement is the generalization that leads to the specific support provided by primary and secondary sources. The thesis is stated early in the paper. The body of the paper then proceeds to provide the facts, examples, and analogies that flow logically from that thesis. The thesis contains key words that are reflected in the outline. These key words become a unifying element throughout the paper, as they reappear in the detailed paragraphs that support and develop the thesis. The conclusion of the paper circles back to the thesis, which is now far more meaningful because of the deductive development that supports it. Chronological order A process that follows a traditional time line or sequence of events. A chronological organization is useful for a paper that explores cause and effect. Parenthetical Documentation Back to Top The Works Cited page, a list of primary and secondary sources, is not sufficient documentation to acknowledge the ideas, facts, and opinions you have included within your text. The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers describes an efficient parenthetical style of documentation to be used within the body of your paper. Guidelines for parenthetical documentation: "References to the text must clearly point to specific sources in the list of works cited" (Gibaldi 184). Try to use parenthetical documentation as little as possible. For example, when you cite an entire work, it is preferable to include the author's name in the text. The author's last name followed by the page number is usually enough for an accurate identification of the source in the works cited list. These examples illustrate the most common kinds of documentation. Documenting a quotation: Ex. "The separation from the personal mother is a particularly intense process for a daughter because she has to separate from the one who is the same as herself" (Murdock 17). She may feel abandoned and angry. Note: The author of The Heroine's Journey is listed under Works Cited by the author's name, reversed--Murdock, Maureen. Quoted material is found on page 17 of that book. Parenthetical documentation is after the quotation mark and before the period. Documenting a paraphrase: Ex. In fairy tales a woman who holds the princess captive or who abandons her often needs to be killed (18). Note: The second paraphrase is also from Murdock's book The Heroine's Journey. It is not, however, necessary to repeat the author's name if no other documentation interrupts the two. If the works cited page lists more than one work by the same author, include within the parentheses an abbreviated form of the appropriate title. You may, of course, include the title in your sentence, making it unnecessary to add an abbreviated title in the citation. > Prepare a Works Cited Page Back to Top There are a variety of titles for the page that lists primary and secondary sources (Gibaldi 106-107). A Works Cited page lists those works you have cited within the body of your paper. The reader need only refer to it for the necessary information required for further independent research. Bibliography means literally a description of books. Because your research may involve the use of periodicals, films, art works, photographs, etc. "Works Cited" is a more precise descriptive term than bibliography. An Annotated Bibliography or Annotated Works Cited page offers brief critiques and descriptions of the works listed. A Works Consulted page lists those works you have used but not cited. Avoid using this format. As with other elements of a research paper there are specific guidelines for the placement and the appearance of the Works Cited page. The following guidelines comply with MLA style: The Work Cited page is placed at the end of your paper and numbered consecutively with the body of your paper. Center the title and place it one inch from the top of your page. Do not quote or underline the title. Double space the entire page, both within and between entries. The entries are arranged alphabetically by the author's last name or by the title of the article or book being cited. If the title begins with an article (a, an, the) alphabetize by the next word. If you cite two or more works by the same author, list the titles in alphabetical order. Begin every entry after the first with three hyphens followed by a period. All entries begin at the left margin but subsequent lines are indented five spaces. Be sure that each entry cited on the Works Cited page corresponds to a specific citation within your paper. Refer to the the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (104- 182) for detailed descriptions of Work Cited entries. Citing sources from online databases is a relatively new phenomenon. Make sure to ask your professor about citing these sources and which style to use. V. Draft, Revise, Rewrite, Rethink Back to Top "There are days when the result is so bad that no fewer than five revisions are required. In contrast, when I'm greatly inspired, only four revisions are needed." --John Kenneth Galbraith Try freewriting your first draft. Freewriting is a discovery process during which the writer freely explores a topic. Let your creative juices flow. In Writing without Teachers , Peter Elbow asserts that "[a]lmost everybody interposes a massive and complicated series of editings between the time words start to be born into consciousness and when they finally come off the end of the pencil or typewriter [or word processor] onto the page" (5). Do not let your internal judge interfere with this first draft. Creating and revising are two very different functions. Don't confuse them! If you stop to check spelling, punctuation, or grammar, you disrupt the flow of creative energy. Create; then fix it later. When material you have researched comes easily to mind, include it. Add a quick citation, one you can come back to later to check for form, and get on with your discovery. In subsequent drafts, focus on creating an essay that flows smoothly, supports fully, and speaks clearly and interestingly. Add style to substance. Create a smooth flow of words, ideas and paragraphs. Rearrange paragraphs for a logical progression of information. Transition is essential if you want your reader to follow you smoothly from introduction to conclusion. Transitional words and phrases stitch your ideas together; they provide coherence within the essay. External transition: Words and phrases that are added to a sentence as overt signs of transition are obvious and effective, but should not be overused, as they may draw attention to themselves and away from ideas. Examples of external transition are "however," "then," "next," "therefore." "first," "moreover," and "on the other hand." Internal transition is more subtle. Key words in the introduction become golden threads when they appear in the paper's body and conclusion. When the writer hears a key word repeated too often, however, she/he replaces it with a synonym or a pronoun. Below are examples of internal transition. Transitional sentences create a logical flow from paragraph to paragraph. Iclude individual words, phrases, or clauses that refer to previous ideas and that point ahead to new ones. They are usually placed at the end or at the beginning of a paragraph. A transitional paragraph conducts your reader from one part of the paper to another. It may be only a few sentences long. Each paragraph of the body of the paper should contain adequate support for its one governing idea. Speak/write clearly, in your own voice. Tone: The paper's tone, whether formal, ironic, or humorous, should be appropriate for the audience and the subject. Voice: Keep you language honest. Your paper should sound like you. Understand, paraphrase, absorb, and express in your own words the information you have researched. Avoid phony language. Sentence formation: When you polish your sentences, read them aloud for word choice and word placement. Be concise. Strunk and White in The Elements of Style advise the writer to "omit needless words" (23). First, however, you must recognize them. Keep yourself and your reader interested. In fact, Strunk's 1918 writing advice is still well worth pondering. First, deliver on your promises. Be sure the body of your paper fulfills the promise of the introduction. Avoid the obvious. Offer new insights. Reveal the unexpected. Have you crafted your conclusion as carefully as you have your introduction? Conclusions are not merely the repetition of your thesis. The conclusion of a research paper is a synthesis of the information presented in the body. Your research has led you to conclusions and opinions that have helped you understand your thesis more deeply and more clearly. Lift your reader to the full level of understanding that you have achieved. Revision means "to look again." Find a peer reader to read your paper with you present. Or, visit your college or university's writing lab. Guide your reader's responses by asking specific questions. Are you unsure of the logical order of your paragraphs? Do you want to know whether you have supported all opinions adequately? Are you concerned about punctuation or grammar? Ask that these issues be addressed. You are in charge. Here are some techniques that may prove helpful when you are revising alone or with a reader. When you edit for spelling errors read the sentences backwards. This procedure will help you look closely at individual words. Always read your paper aloud. Hearing your own words puts them in a new light. Listen to the flow of ideas and of language. Decide whether or not the voice sounds honest and the tone is appropriate to the purpose of the paper and to your audience. Listen for awkward or lumpy wording. Find the one right word, Eliminate needless words. Combine sentences. Kill the passive voice. Eliminate was/were/is/are constructions. They're lame and anti-historical. Be ruthless. If an idea doesn't serve your thesis, banish it, even if it's one of your favorite bits of prose. In the margins, write the major topic of each paragraph. By outlining after you have written the paper, you are once again evaluating your paper's organization. OK, you've got the process down. Now execute! And enjoy! It's not everyday that you get to make history. VI. For Further Reading: Works Cited Back to Top Barnet, Sylvan, and Hugo Bedau. Critical Thinking, Reading, and Writing: A Brief Guide to Argument. Boston: Bedford, 1993. Brent, Doug. Reading as Rhetorical Invention: Knowledge,Persuasion and the Teaching of Research-Based Writing. Urbana: NCTE, 1992. Elbow, Peter. Writing without Teachers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. Gibladi, Joseph. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 4th ed. New York: Modern Language Association, 1995. Horvitz, Deborah. "Nameless Ghosts: Possession and Dispossession in Beloved." Studies in American Fiction , Vol. 17, No. 2, Autum, 1989, pp. 157-167. Republished in the Literature Research Center. Gale Group. (1 January 1999). Klauser, Henriette Anne. Writing on Both Sides of the Brain: Breakthrough Techniques for People Who Write. Philadelphia: Harper, 1986. Rico, Gabriele Lusser. Writing the Natural Way: Using Right Brain Techniques to Release Your Expressive Powers. Los Angeles: Houghton, 1983. Sorenson, Sharon. The Research Paper: A Contemporary Approach. New York: AMSCO, 1994. Strunk, William, Jr., and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. 3rd ed. New York: MacMillan, 1979. Back to Top This guide adapted from materials published by Thomson Gale, publishers. For free resources, including a generic guide to writing term papers, see the website , which also includes product information for schools.
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Writing History: An Introductory Guide to How History Is Produced

What is history.

Most people believe that history is a "collection of facts about the past." This is reinforced through the use of textbooks used in teaching history. They are written as though they are collections of information. In fact, history is NOT a "collection of facts about the past." History consists of making arguments about what happened in the past on the basis of what people recorded (in written documents, cultural artifacts, or oral traditions) at the time. Historians often disagree over what "the facts" are as well as over how they should be interpreted. The problem is complicated for major events that produce "winners" and "losers," since we are more likely to have sources written by the "winners," designed to show why they were heroic in their victories.

History in Your Textbook

Many textbooks acknowledge this in lots of places. For example, in one book, the authors write, "The stories of the conquests of Mexico and Peru are epic tales told by the victors. Glorified by the chronicles of their companions, the conquistadors, or conquerors, especially Hernán Cortés (1485-1547), emerged as heroes larger than life." The authors then continue to describe Cortés ’s actions that ultimately led to the capture of Cuauhtómoc, who ruled the Mexicas after Moctezuma died. From the authors’ perspective, there is no question that Moctezuma died when he was hit by a rock thrown by one of his own subjects. When you read accounts of the incident, however, the situation was so unstable, that it is not clear how Moctezuma died. Note: there is little analysis in this passage. The authors are simply telling the story based upon Spanish versions of what happened. There is no interpretation. There is no explanation of why the Mexicas lost.   Many individuals believe that history is about telling stories, but most historians also want answers to questions like why did the Mexicas lose?

What Are Primary Sources?

To answer these questions, historians turn to primary sources, sources that were written at the time of the event, in this case written from 1519-1521 in Mexico. These would be firsthand accounts. Unfortunately, in the case of the conquest of Mexico, there is only one genuine primary source written from 1519-1521. This primary source consists of the letters Cortés wrote and sent to Spain. Other sources are conventionally used as primary sources, although they were written long after the conquest. One example consists of the account written by Cortés ’s companion, Bernal Díaz del Castillo. Other accounts consist of Mexica and other Nahua stories and traditions about the conquest of Mexico from their point of view.

Making Arguments in the Textbook

Historians then use these sources to make arguments, which could possibly be refuted by different interpretations of the same evidence or the discovery of new sources.  For example, the Bentley and Ziegler textbook make several arguments on page 597 about why the Spaniards won:

"Steel swords, muskets, cannons, and horses offered Cortés and his men some advantage over the forces they met and help to account for the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire".

"Quite apart from military technology, Cortés' expedition benefited from divisions among the indigenous peoples of Mexico."

"With the aid of Doña Marina, the conquistadors forged alliances with peoples who resented domination by the Mexicas, the leaders of the Aztec empire...."

Ideally, under each of these "thesis statements," that is, each of these arguments about why the Mexicas were defeated, the authors will give some examples of information that backs up their "thesis." To write effective history and history essays, in fact to write successfully in any area, you should begin your essay with the "thesis" or argument you want to prove with concrete examples that support your thesis.  Since the Bentley and Ziegler book does not provide any evidence to back up their main arguments, you can easily use the material available here to provide evidence to support your claim that any one of the above arguments is better than the others.  You could also use the evidence to introduce other possibilities:  Mocteuzuma's poor leadership, Cortés' craftiness, or disease.

Become a Critical Reader

To become a critical reader, to empower yourself to "own your own history," you should think carefully about whether the evidence the authors provide does in fact support their theses.  Since the Bentley and Ziegler book provides only conclusions and not much evidence to back up their main points, you may want to explore your class notes on the topic and then examine the primary sources included on the Conquest of Mexico on this web site.

Your Assignment for Writing History with Primary Sources

There are several ways to make this a successful assignment. First, you might take any of the theses presented in the book and use information from primary sources to disprove it—the "trash the book" approach. Or, if your professor has said something in class that you are not sure about, find material to disprove it—the "trash the prof" approach (and, yes, it is really okay if you have the evidence ). Another approach is to include new information that the authors ignored . For example, the authors say nothing about omens. If one analyzes omens in the conquest, will it change the theses or interpretations presented in the textbook? Or, can one really present a Spanish or Mexica perspective?  Another approach is to make your own thesis, i.e., one of the biggest reasons for the conquest was that Moctezuma fundamentally misunderstood Cortés.

When Sources Disagree

If you do work with the Mexican materials, you will encounter the harsh reality of historical research: the sources do not always agree on what happened in a given event. It is up to you, then, to decide who to believe. Most historians would probably believe Cortés’ letters were the most likely to be accurate, but is this statement justified? Cortés was in the heat of battle and while it looked like he might win easy victory in 1519, he did not complete his mission until 1521.  The Cuban Governor, Diego Velázquez wanted his men to capture Cortés and bring him back to Cuba on charges of insubordination.  Was he painting an unusually rosy picture of his situation so that the Spanish King would continue to support him? It is up to you to decide. Have the courage to own your own history! Díaz Del Castillo wrote his account later in his life, when the Spaniards were being attacked for the harsh policies they implemented in Mexico after the conquest.  He also was upset that Cortés' personal secretary published a book that made it appear that only Cortés was responsible for the conquest. There is no question that the idea of the heroic nature of the Spanish actions is clearest in his account. But does this mean he was wrong about what he said happened and why? It is up to you to decide. The Mexica accounts are the most complex since they were originally oral histories told in Nahuatl that were then written down in a newly rendered alphabetic Nahuatl. They include additional Mexica illustrations of their version of what happened, for painting was a traditional way in which the Mexicas wrote history. Think about what the pictures tell us. In fact, a good paper might support a thesis that uses a picture as evidence. Again, how reliable is this material? It is up to you to decide.

One way to think about the primary sources is to ask the questions: (1) when was the source written, (2) who is the intended audience of the source, (3) what are the similarities between the accounts, (4) what are the differences between the accounts, (5) what pieces of information in the accounts will support your thesis, and (6) what information in the sources are totally irrelevant to the thesis or argument you want to make.

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3 How Historians Approach History: Fields and Periodization

Writing history means much more than just re-telling old stories. Primary sources can be tricky; some contain internal references or unique vocabulary and interpreting them takes skill. Getting a handle on the vast number of secondary sources produced on many topics also requires training. While you will develop your skills with primary and second sources in this course, many of the best insights will come only with years of experience. In their efforts to build solid knowledge about the past, professional historians—those trained formally in the research and writing of history—inevitably specialize in a field of study. As experts in one or two fields, they can focus on the unique properties of their genre of historical records and put some limits on the secondary literature with which they must be familiar.

Typical fields of study focus on specific geographic areas, a single scholarly approach, and/or set time period. The list of courses offered by your history department will give you an idea of a few such fields: British Empire, History of Science and Technology, US Women’s history, Military history, and Texas, 1845-present. Below you’ll find an explanation of how scholars go about defining fields of study, including historical eras. As you read this chapter, consider not only how the definition of historical fields and periodization has shaped the history profession and your course of study as a history major, but also how the process reflects larger philosophical assumptions that undergird the discipline. Such assumptions change though—might the present era be another one in which common approaches to the past shift into new configurations?

Historical Fields

On one hand, history departments throughout the US are dedicated to investigating the totality of the human experience, or at least the past for which we have historical records. But on the other, these departments are also the product of contemporary historical forces, and so tend to be particularly reflective of the dynamics that shaped the country. To wit, Anglo cultural influence and attention to the “rise of the West” long shaped the history written by Europeans and Americans. In any given department, therefore, you will likely find plenty of faculty specializing in some element of US, European, or Atlantic history. Political and social movements during the lives of contemporary historians have also had an impact. While economic, political, and military history continue to be popular sub-fields in US history, following the Civil Rights movement, newly integrated departments (by race, gender, and sexual orientation) have increased attention in scholarship and teaching to “social” histories, or history from below. Histories of laborers, women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ and disabled communities as well as a whole gamut of social movements have caught the interest of historians and history students alike, and the sub-fields associated with these movements have proliferated.

Of course, most major history departments around the country attempt to also have a faculty member (or sometimes two) from each of the following regional areas: Middle East/North Africa, South Asia, East Asia, Latin American, Sub-Saharan Africa, Australasia. In an increasingly interconnected, globalized world, comparative history has grown in importance and new fields focusing on Atlantic, Pacific, World, transnational, and borderlands history have sometimes supplanted the teaching of history focused on a nation state. With the exception of Atlantic history, which took off during the Cold War and was part of an overarching search for common ground among the allies facing down the Soviet Union, these more expansive fields have become increasingly resonant in the post-Cold War era, which has been characterized by intense globalization and its attendant global labor market, supply chain, and transculturation.

Within these geographic outlines, when pursuing research most historians specialize further in either by approach or time period, or both. Though their teaching subjects can be broader, historians might call themselves experts in the US Civil War, Modern European women’s history, or the cultural and intellectual history of the Ming Dynasty. Apart from the requirements of fluency in other languages, the differences between sources that focus on modern military developments differ quite a bit from those concerning Confucian ideology, and rarely would one historian feel comfortable working with both sorts of primary sources or try to keep track of the historiographical developments in two such divergent fields. As a result, historic sub-fields usually have thematic angles as well, including aspects of technological, economic, political, legal, military, diplomatic, environmental, social, intellectual, or cultural history. The latter fields encompass still more sub-specialties based on gender, sex, race, ethnicity, disability, and legal status. The instructor in your US women’s history class might actually be a specialist on women, gender, race, and sex in the nineteenth-century US South.

While the permutations are not endless, they do allow for some fairly narrow fields of study, as scholars sometimes need decades to develop the necessary knowledge base. Yet just because historical specialization allows ease with sources, methods, and approaches to the past, it does not follow that as a beginner you cannot contribute to scholarship. Often enough, those who have a unique perspective see connections that those long familiar with a story do not. Moreover, learning by attempting to explain the past from your perspective will bring past actors alive to you as well as assure that you grasp just what it is that historians do.

  • While there is nothing wrong with becoming an expert in individual nation-state or time period (or time period of a nation state) at UTA we want to offer you a broad range of history of which to explore from professors who are proficient in various regions, periods, and types of history. We also want to encourage you to explore and so to get a major at UTA you have to take a variety of courses both nation specific as well as more broad.
  • Check out the UTA History Courses in the Undergraduate Course Catalog for a full list of courses offered by the History Department at UTA (note: not all classes are offered every semester or every year)
  • Say you love history, after all who doesn’t, but it just doesn’t fit in your class schedule, consider one of UTA’s History Minors. With curated focuses like History of Technology and Science, Geography, and Military History, or a “build your own” generic History minor, the UTA History Department offers a broad range of courses for History Minors as well.
  • Find out more about History Minors at UTA

Historical Periodization

Another significant way that historians find entry into the vast amount of human experience is to categorize it by blocks of time, or historical periods . At a basic level the names given to historical periods simply provide other options for historical study, in the same way that a historian might specialize geographically or by methodological approach. Fields such as “Nazi Germany” or “Colonial America” both illustrate how political events often define the blocks of time that historians mark for study and do so without controversy.

But more fundamentally, historians’ efforts to identify appropriate historical periods can be very controversial and is at the heart of what we do. Because the point of establishing accepted historical periods is to help facilitate historical analysis, historians hope to identify periods that have stable characteristics. For example, Victorian England, named after a monarch who ruled from 1837 to 1901, marks a period of rising industrialization, the expansion of British political control around the world, and a transformation of social rules, especially those concerning women and sex. (Perhaps you’ve heard of the era when people put skirts on piano legs and pasted fig leaves on the genitalia of ancient statues.) Scholars of Victorian England suggest that the expansion of empire was in fact related to the increased prudery and expectation of restraint on the part of women. The justification for imperial control rested on ideas of racial superiority, which in turn rested upon an emerging cultural myth about “English ladies” who were ostensibly quite different from newly colonized women of color with a more casual approach to sex.

But the scholars who identify historical periods are themselves embedded in a specific point in time. Their biases or limited perspective can lead them to over- or under-estimate the importance of an invention, or cultural event, or a popular person of their own era. Indeed, scholars in the late nineteenth century—Victoria’s own contemporaries—started using the label “Victorian England” while she was still alive. Since then, some British historians have questioned the term, arguing that the characteristics we attribute to the period stretch well beyond the limits of her reign. Other historians have defended the term, emphasizing the link between Queen Victoria herself and the many new cultural and social conventions that marked the era—and so the appropriateness of referring to much of the nineteenth century as “Victorian” remains a topic of debate. Likewise, various other blocks of time—the “twentieth century” or the “Renaissance”—regularly inspire discussion about whether they designate a stable period of time or when exactly a period (such as the Renaissance) began and ended.

Another element of periodization is the effort to identify watershed moments . In nature, a watershed is a spot in a river or stream where the lay of the land forces the water to change the direction in which it flows. Watershed events are those occurrences that altered human behavior or ideology in significant ways. For example, the invention and deployment of nuclear weapons changed not only diplomacy and politics in the postwar era, but also many Americans’ sense of security and thus family priorities. Both diplomatic and gender historians see the deployment of atomic bombs in the late 1940s as a watershed moment. Or to take an example from your own lives: Adults living through the current Covid-19 pandemic are already refering to “the Before Times” as a shorthand reference to an earlier historical period, one in which our lives operated differently than they do after the spread of the virus. The lasting changes in technology and the workplace alone indicate the pandemic will be a watershed moment and that “pre-pandemic” and “post-pandemic” will almost certainly periodize the history of public health, work, and education–at a minimum–for future historians.

But like the process of defining historical periods, the identification of historical watersheds leads to a great deal of debate. Is an event identified as a watershed really the moment in which everything changed? Was one person—or their ideas about politics or technology—a “game changer”? Whereas one historian might see the increasingly insularity of 1950s family life as stemming from the fears brought on by the watershed event of the atomic bomb, another might see that development in family life as connected to rising affluence, and suggest that the true watershed moment was not the bomb, but rather the decision of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations to fund research and development for American businesses after the war. Such is the stuff of history and historical debate.  After a few more tips on how to analyze historical evidence, make inferences, and avoid historical fallacies (keep reading), you will be able to join some of those debates yourself.

those produced by the actors of the time and can run the gamut from oral histories to government documents to Hollywood films to material culture and beyond.

the change in the way historians at large view a particular topic

a range of years established by historians to categorize some change that was experienced by a certain region or the world (ie The Industrial Revolution or Antebellum US)

in history this means a moment that brought great change to a region or the world

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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A new book of world history has a playlist to go along with it

Historian Simon Sebag Montefiore has compiled a playlist to go along with his book, "The World".


Simon Sebag Montefiore's book "The World" investigates the history of humanity through families - the Caesars and Borgias, the Kims and Tudors, Roosevelts and the House of Saud. The book spans a thousand pages of plagues, pandemics and crimes against humanity, along with staggering stories of survival and achievement. And you can read it all while listening to a playlist compiled by the author.


THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Please allow me to introduce myself. I'm a man of wealth and taste.

SELYUKH: More than 400 songs from the Rolling Stones, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, The Commodores and many more. Earlier this year, NPR's Scott Simon spoke with author and historian Simon Sebag Montefiore about his book and his playlist.


SCOTT SIMON: I gather you believe "Sympathy For The Devil" is the best song about history.

SIMON SEBAG MONTEFIORE: I put it as my No. 1 - the brilliant way it's written, the trope of an unknown narrator that we - whom we discover, whose identity is revealed and who plays a role in many of the most terrible atrocities of the 20th century. I think it's one of the best-written rock songs of all time.

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) I rode a tank, held a general's rank when the Blitzkrieg raged and the bodies stank.

SIMON: What does this playlist provide for our perspective on history?

MONTEFIORE: Well, part of the fun thing about writing a family history is to get a feel of the way people lived, which is not just empires rising and falling, battles and pandemics, but also how they ate, how they dressed and, of course, what kind of music they listen to. And so I thought, God, it'd be really fun to have a playlist of all the great history songs, which I define as - history song is either about a historical character or characters, or it's a song that becomes the theme of a historical event.


NINA SIMONE: (Singing) Southern trees...

SIMON: More music - Nina Simone's version of "Strange Fruit."

SIMONE: (Singing) ...Bearing strange fruit - blood on the leaves and blood at the roots. Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze.

SIMON: What do we hear in this song?

MONTEFIORE: I mean, this is a song - this is a terrifying, terrible, atrocious narrative of a lynching in the South. It tells part of the story of America, of the Jim Crow years of America. And slavery is a big part of this world history, Atlantic slavery but also other slave trades in East Africa, trans-Saharan and the Mediterranean-Black Sea slave trade as well. You know, the great thing about writing a family history of the world is that you can cover these things in special ways. So some of the families, as you mentioned, are royal families, political families, families of power, but some are enslaved families, too.

SIMONE: (Singing) Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

SIMON: I feel the need to cite the author of the song, Abel Meeropol. Do you know that story?

MONTEFIORE: Yeah. I mean, he's a - he was Jewish.

SIMON: Abel Meeropol adopted Michael and Robby (ph) Meeropol, who had been born to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

MONTEFIORE: Amazing. Amazing.


SIMON: In another direction entirely...


HERMAN'S HERMITS: (Singing) I'm Henry VIII, I am. Henry VIII I am, I am. I got married to the widow next door. She's been married seven times before.

SIMON: ...What scholarly contribution does or do Herman's Hermits make?

MONTEFIORE: Some of these songs are extremely dark and almost unbearable, you know, like "Strange Fruit," and some are just outrageous fun. I mean, you've got to be ready for all sorts of changes of tone.

MONTEFIORE: You know, one of the things that's fun about this is not just to have songs that mention historical characters. I mean, one of my favorites is The Stranglers' "No More Heroes."


THE STRANGLERS: (Singing) Whatever happened to Leon Trotsky? He got an ice pick that made his ears burn.

MONTEFIORE: That's another wonderful one, too. And there's songs about serious things, you know, "Baraye," the beautiful song, Iranian song, from today.


SHERVIN HAJIPOUR: (Singing in non-English language).

MONTEFIORE: There are songs from Ukraine, for example.


KALUSH AND KALUSH ORCHESTRA: (Singing in non-English language).

MONTEFIORE: There are songs from the Soviet Union in World War II.


ALEXANDROV ENSEMBLE: (Singing in non-English language).

MONTEFIORE: So I hope that one finds as much variety here as one does in the book as one does in world history.


BOBBIE GENTRY: (Singing) It was the 3 of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day.

SIMON: From following your book tour, I understand you were at the Tallahatchie Bridge.

MONTEFIORE: I was at the Tallahatchie Bridge. Bobbie Gentry is in the list, of course. Of course, I stopped the car and just had a moment.

GENTRY: (Singing) And Mama hollered at the back door, y'all remember to wipe your feet. And then she said, I got some news this morning from Choctaw Ridge. Today, Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

MONTEFIORE: And I was just in Graceland, too. And I think Elvis is one of those characters. For about 50 years, the great pop stars were like - and I'm slightly exaggerating here but not completely, I think - were like the grand dukes, the cardinals, maybe the great artists of bygone eras. Some of them are essential for a world history. So we've got Frank Sinatra. We've got Bowie. We've got Elvis, of course. And the Stones and the Beatles are all really part of the development of commerce, of capitalism, of a single American culture, of American domination of world culture. Frank Sinatra is a classic example. He sung at the 1946 summit meeting of the Mafia, who are in the book - Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky. He was friends with Jack Kennedy. He introduced Kennedy to Marilyn Monroe and Judith Exner.

SIMON: And Marilyn Monroe's version of "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" is also on the playlist.


MARILYN MONROE: (Singing) Happy birthday to you.

HAJIPOUR: Absolutely. I mean, she's in the book. Her singing that song is the sort of climax of Camelot in many ways. And the Kennedys are a big part of this story. And in case one thinks dynasties are over, in most of the rest of the world, for all sorts of reasons, people are returning to dynasties, to clans, to families of different sorts.

SIMON: There's a Marcos back in power in the Philippines.

MONTEFIORE: There's a Marcos back in power. There was a Kenyatta back in power. And then there are proper monarchies, which are riding high. Look at the Saudi monarchy, for example. And then there are republic monarchies, like the Kims of North Korea, the Assads and many, many others who are trying to create actual hereditary dynasties like monarchies. People often ask me, who's the most powerful family in the world? And, of course, the answer has to be the Kim family of North Korea because they have the ultimate heirloom, a nuclear arsenal.

SIMON: You write in "The World," history shows that humans have a limitless ability to destroy and an ingenious ability to recover. So the last song I want to ask you about is, of course, by a Chicagoan, Sam Cooke. (Singing) Don't know much about history.


SAM COOKE: (Singing) Don't know much about history. Don't know much biology.

SIMON: What wisdom from history or about history is in this song?

MONTEFIORE: The reason why I have it in the playlist is not just that it mentions history. And it is the most beautiful song. It's also optimistic about human nature.

COOKE: (Singing) And I know that if you love me, too, what a wonderful world this would be.

MONTEFIORE: And there's something else. I don't know much about history. You may find this surprising for someone who's just written...

SIMON: A thousand pages. Yes, right.

MONTEFIORE: We often revere history as propulsive, as almost sacred in its authority. And, in fact, history doesn't matter that much. What really matters is how people want to live now. And that's the difference between Ukraine, for example, and President Putin. President Putin is living in the age of Catherine the Great and Prince Potemkin and Nicholas I. And the Ukrainians want to live now in freedom. And that's the theme of that beautiful song by Sam Cooke.

MONTEFIORE: Simon Sebag Montefiore - his new book, "The World: A Family History Of Humanity," accompanied by a playlist on Spotify. Thanks so much for being with us.

SIMON: Always lovely to talk to you.

COOKE: (Singing) Don't know much about algebra. Don't know what a slide rule is for. But I do know one and one is two. And if this one could be with you, what a wonderful world this would be. Now, I don't claim...

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historical texts

It's Time to Rewrite the Rules of Historical Fiction

Research has long been a backbone of the genre. But beyond the textbooks, there's a whole world of family stories that have not yet become history. They deserve their place in fiction, too.

Headshot of Vanessa Chan

When you write a historical novel, one of the most common questions you get asked is, how did you research your book? How, readers and writers alike ask, did you learn about the time you were writing about? Did you visit the places you wrote about? Did you conduct mountains of interviews with sobbing survivors? Did you pore through grainy archival footage to find little factoids no one had written about while locked in the bowels of library basements? There is a curious, almost voyeuristic desire to peer into an author’s process. Historical fiction is lived experience, often traumatic, made legible and digestible by the novelist, and people want to know what kind of instruments the author used to excavate said experiences. They want to see the way the pudding is made; they want to understand the ways you stitched the broken shards of history together.

Now that I’m publishing my first novel—a work of historical fiction set in 1930s and 1940s colonized Malaysia, called The Storm We Made , about an unlikely female spy and the impact of her actions on her three children—I’m facing familiar questions about my research process. The questions seem innocuous enough, and well within the realm of reasonable questions to ask of an author of historical fiction. Friends and well-meaning readers want to know which authors’ research processes I mirrored, whose methods I preferred, whose I found cumbersome. An easy question, a throwaway—something I should have no problem answering. They want to visualize my process. Did I scour old Malaysian newspapers, stain my fingers black? Did I lock myself up studying ancient and fragile tapes to understand what people wore at the time? Did I interview thousands of survivors? And even though it seems simple enough to answer, I admit—I am defensive, crushed by the specificity of their questions, terrified to confront the very simple truth.

Because the answer, I’m afraid to whisper, is I did none of those things.

Six months ago, my UK publisher invited me to speak about my book at events in London and Wales to drum up excitement. My first event ever was at a well-known festival, where typically 200,000 people would attend about ten days of programming consisting of book-related panels, speeches, parties, and interviews. At the signing line, my first ever, where I was signing advance copies of my book, a woman came up to the table. I remember very little about her except that her nails were painted a beautiful forest green. She held out her early copy for me to sign.

“Did you ever go to the labor camp from your novel?” she asked, her green nails tapping against the plastic signing table.

She was referring to the labor camp at Kanchanaburi on the border of Thailand and Burma, made famous by the movie Bridge Over River Kwai. It was at this very labor camp that I placed one of my main characters, a teenage boy who had never faced any hardship before his stint at the camp. Documented history indicates that at this camp, nearly 300,000 Southeast Asian civilians and Allied prisoners of war were subjected to inhumane labor conditions. At least 100,000 people died of starvation, exposure, and torture.

“Because I did,” she continued.

She told me that a few years ago, she had gone on a multi-day tour where she stayed in a camp and visited Hellfire Pass, a section of the railway that gets its name from scenes of emaciated prisoners laboring to build it by torchlight, in what looked like an imagined scene from hell. As part of the tour, she paid her respects to monks at a temple erected nearby, and she reflected on the unfortunate history of the land she was standing on.

“I can’t believe you didn’t go!” she said. “You should go sometime. It’s an experience.”

As she walked away from me clutching my book, my first instinct was derision. Ugh, I thought. Yet another tourist marching around death monuments to fulfill some morbid sense of achievement. I imagined her green fingernails drumming against the commemorative plaque of death as she exulted in her sightseeing achievement.

But later, I found myself filled with doubt. Had I missed a crucial opportunity for research? I had written a whole character who lived in a labor camp, who socialized with other boys like him, who endured the torture of adolescence while being tortured. My mind had chided the woman with the green fingernails as disrespectful, someone who reveled in her ignorance. But in fact, was I the one who, in not pressing my feet into the dirt that once housed the desperation of hundreds of thousands of men, the one who was thoughtless and disrespectful of the dead, and the survivors?

The first kernel of my book was written in a strange regurgitation. At the end of my first semester of graduate school in 2019, in a class led by the novelist Marie-Helene Bertino, she assigned us a final project—to write a short story based on a prompt.

“Write about someone who does something in a loop, repetitive. Give it stakes.”

I am ashamed to say I was not particularly diligent about this project. The semester was ending and I was ready to be done, plus in grad school everyone got As, so long as the assignments were turned in. I sat down to write, ready to cobble a few scenes together and finish my semester. Instead, five thousand words fell out of me in a two-day fever. I wrote about a teenage girl who had to run through a series of repeated and increasingly dangerous checkpoints during a war to get home before curfew. As she runs, desperate to make it home, she recalls the many difficult moments during the war that had gotten her to this point, praying that she would make it home before soldiers stormed the streets.

Before this assignment, most of my stories took place either contemporarily or in the 90s and early 2000s, all familiar timeframes to me. This was different. I remember being both relieved and tearful after I finished this story. I remember my voice shaking as I read the first paragraph aloud in class. This emotion confused me; I was certainly not alive during WWII, and these were not my recollections. What I had written, in my two-day fever was a scrapbook of stories my grandmother had told me about her life during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya—stories I had clearly internalized, stories that had been gestating in me for years, waiting for the right impetus to make themselves felt. This was the first etching of what has become The Storm We Made , a fever dream of lore that had lived inside me, remembered.

Can memory be research? More importantly, can secondary memory, stories passed down through time, unreliable, malleable—can these stories be considered research? Before the pandemic, when I went home to Malaysia, my then 90+-year-old grandmother would hand me a mug of Lipton tea and tell me the same three stories about her experience surviving the Japanese Occupation of Malaysia during WWII. She would talk about how she was almost killed by an airstrike, about a kind Japanese man who worked at the railway and sometimes secured her family extra food coupons, and about her brother who, while conscripted to a labor camp, was caged in a chicken coop for a year. But each retelling changed a little, and the details were switched—was it only her brother in the chicken coop or was he stuck in there with others? Was it an airstrike or a burning building? Was the Japanese man an administrator or a tutor? Oral histories, as evidenced by the spottiness of my grandmother’s memories, can be unreliable.

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Kali Fajardo-Anstine, in her remarkable essay, “ On Roots and Research ,” writes about how in college, she was afraid to contradict her white professor, who read from a textbook that called the Ku Klux Klan’s presence in 1920s Colorado simply a “social club.” This statement was in direct contradiction to the numerous stories Fajardo-Anstine had heard over the years from her own family, who told meandering anecdotes about the fear and violence the Klan had inflicted on Denver. But because of the inherent shakiness of oral history, Fajardo-Anstine worried that her family stories would not hold up against the professor’s textbook; she felt frozen, unable to defy. Like Fajardo-Anstine, I found myself second-guessing my grandmother’s accounts, setting aside the stories and memories passed down to me over the years. They cannot be accurate, I thought. And, similar to Fajardo-Anstine, there aren’t many records of the time period available for me to verify my grandmother’s recollections.

Then March 2020 arrived, and the world shut down. Libraries were mostly closed, and even the ones that were open felt dangerous to visit when the shelter-in-place order was in effect. Archives were unstaffed. My family in Malaysia had only one duty: the task of protecting my storytelling grandmother, the hero of my burgeoning novel. Once a sociable woman, her life became days of solitude because she had to be kept away from everyone—everyone was a potential carrier of her death sentence.

But still I felt compelled to write. For years when I have talked about my book, I have told people that I wrote the story first—I imagined things that happened and filled them in. But what really happened was I wrote from memory; from the stories I had internalized, but did not realize I carried within me. I wrote about a teenage girl’s friendship with a Japanese civilian that endured for years after the war. I wrote about a boy who disappeared early during the war and returned as a changed man after. I wrote about a mother who mixed gluey tapioca in with miniscule rice rations to keep her family alive. I wrote what I knew, and I was shocked to find that I knew much more than I thought I did. I did have help, though: my grandmother had gifted me her “memory book,” a brown notebook of loose anecdotes she’d started writing down in her older age, afraid to lose her memory. When I was done, I sent my manuscript to my history buff of a father, who did basic fact-checking for me. He reminded me that wartime dishware would have been enamel—not melamine, as I had presupposed. My uncle from Australia sent me a book of photos that he found—some of it government propaganda, but useful for me to understand how buildings looked at the time.

During the writing process, I often felt insecure about what I deemed were my insufficient research skills, my inability to find texts about the Southeast Asian history of occupation. I worried that without a binder of interview transcripts and a multi-page bibliography, I was nothing but an imposter to the genre—a disrespectful neophyte who shouldn’t be allowed into the halls of historical fiction.

Good historical fiction feels immersive. Despite the strangeness of the times, you, the reader, feel as though you are seeing the world through your narrator’s eyes, whether it’s a teen girl trying to hold her family together or a soldier marching to the front—it’s about the ability to become engulfed in the “story” part of the history, to feel the emotion and stakes of the moment, even if time has passed. And what is history if not stories passed down through time? The thing I had to realize was this: there simply isn’t much written about the histories of people living through WWII outside of the Western front. The history of colonized people continues to be written by those who colonize.

What is history if not stories passed down through time?

In order to write my book, I had to think of my family and my own ancestral stories simply as an earlier iteration of the research process. Our stories, because they have not been given their due attention, have not yet become history. This meant relying on less “traditional” methods of research. Instead, conversations with my grandmother, fact-checking from a history buff father, and a book of propaganda photographs had to be enough. This is not to say that I did no traditional research at all and wrote an ahistorical novel. The internet helped me fill in dates of major battles. But it was my family who helped me fill in the little things that mattered, the daily life that was lived—the “story” part.

Memories are records. Yes, there is a shakiness to memories and a patchiness to oral history. But the power of fiction is its ability to transcend the wobbliness of facts—to write shaky moments into concrete existence and make them sturdier than the historical event. Memories make for rich fiction because they are specific, personal evidence—yes evidence—of a life lived. As the documentarians of family histories that have remained ignored by the Western sources, we must trust and rely on the stories our families tell us, and on the histories our ancestors have lived. Our stories deserve their place in history, too.

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A history of twins in science

The NASA twin study. Source: NASA Johnson. © National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

A history of twins in science

By William Viney January 08, 2024


Twins share their environment and (in the case of identical siblings) much of their genetic make-up with another person. This has made them idealized research subjects in scientific studies. By dividing twins into groups and comparing them with each other and the wider population, scientists have gained insights into human nature—and nurture.

The eugenic foundations of twin research are easily forgotten or overlooked. Twin people were first placed into modern scientific studies by Francis Galton (1822–1911), the British eugenicist. Galton’s studies of twins in the 1870s led him to conclude that twins grew dissimilar owing to the “ development of natural characteristics” or “continue their lives, keeping time like two watches, hardly to be thrown out of accord except by some physical jar”.

Galton promoted using twins as a new method to support a biometric and eugenic approach to scientific research. Ever since, scientists and other experts celebrate twins as “ natural experiments ” and “ living laboratories ”—nature’s gift to scientific reason.  Evidence from twin studies has been used to measure, control and manipulate how society is organised. Motivated by eugenic race science , German scientists of the 1920s separated twins into ‘identical’ (monozygotic) and ‘fraternal’ (dizygotic) control groups for the first time. They observed and quantified traits based on biological and environmental differences between twin pairs and groups made up of twin pairs.  

Otmar von Verschuer (1896–1969) was a professor of genetics and also a eugenicist in pre- and post-war Germany. Directly inspired by Galton , Verschuer developed a big-data approach to the recruitment of twins and storage of twin data. He also trained his students such as the Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele (1911 – 1979), who carried out experiments at Auschwitz concentration camp.

Subsequent generations of twin researchers may seek to distance themselves from these histories and their legacies. Yet the treatment of twins as a scientifically ‘useful’ community is a utilitarian belief that has endured over the last 150 years. Earlier experiments pioneered the technical and organisational research principles still used in twin studies today, where approximately 1.5 million twins participate in scientific research worldwide.

Long before their use in modern and contemporary science, however, twins have been treated as heroes, gods and monsters, evidence of faith and models for speculative reason. How and why they are valued changes according to time and place. My research contextualises the many different ways that twins have shaped the human past, and the ways twins have been used to predict the future.

For Christian theologians like Augustine of Hippo ( 354–430) , for example, twins were evidence of free will’s triumph over the zodiac. Look at twins, argued Augustine, they are born beneath the same stars, yet lead different lives and die at different times. Augustine used twins as evidence against fate in his fight with astrologers. 

Illustration of the Gemini twins

Several hundred years later, physicist Albert Einstein (1879 –1955) and philosopher Henri Bergson (1859–1941) used twins to debate the nature of time . Einstein’s thought experiment asked what would happen if one twin travels into space close to the speed of light. He argued this twin would return to Earth younger than their twin sibling who stayed home. Bergson argued that time could not be understood simply in terms of science. Their public debates attracted huge audiences. These audiences were confronted, once again, by how the twins are used to explore new truths about our existence.

As part of a NASA study, Scott Kelly (b. 1964 – ) spent a year in space, while his identical twin, Mark, stayed on Earth as a control subject. For a year NASA’s Twins Study collected data to test how spaceflight affects oxygen-deprivation stress, increases inflammation, and causes changes in nutrients that influence gene expression. One of the things they discovered was that while high-speed space travel does indeed affect time, it also shapes how time affects the functions of the human body. 

Twins have given instruction and entertainment in religious texts, medieval folk tales, theatre and television. One recurring story involves twins who are separated but eventually restored to a state of harmony. The fascination with twins “separated at birth” became another scientific method used to explore the relationship between nature and nurture.

‘Three Identical Strangers’ (2018) is a documentary about triplets Robert Shafran, Edward Galland and David Kellman, who were separated at birth but found each other by chance in the 1980s. Their reunion was a national media spectacle. Scientists from the Minnesota Study for Twins Reared Apart (MISTRA) asked them to join their study.

MISTRA was not the triplets’ first reared-apart study. Later, they discovered that they were part of another, study of separated twins and other multiple-birth siblings, being conducted covertly by Peter Neubauer (1913–2008) in New York . Neubauer recorded the lives of twins and triplets who had been separated at birth by an adoption agency, which believed that they would develop their own identities if kept apart. Neither the adoptive families nor the children were told that they were twins or triplets. The film explored the ethics of keeping the study a secret. It also raised an important question relevant to all so-called ‘natural experiments’ involving twins: do researchers shape the subjects they observe? 

We live in an era when twins are routinely bioengineered. On 6 June 1981 Stephen and Amanda Mays became the world’s first twins to be conceived thanks to in vitro fertilisation. As more sophisticated medical techniques and complex fertility markets developed in the last decades of the 20th century, twin birth rates increased dramatically— up 40 per cent in some countries .  

Twin pregnancies and births increase many health risks for mother and babies , however. In the early 2000s the industry regulator in the UK, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, commissioned an independent review into excess deaths linked to twin pregnancies. As a result, it now campaigns to educate medical professionals and parents about the risks to mother and baby from implanting multiple embryos during IVF treatments. The policy highlights how twins, whether actively sought by parents or incidentally made, are often the result of competing reproductive, medical and financial pressures. 

Twins were also the result of a controversial procedure that produced the world’s first genetically-modified humans. In November 2018, the birth of Lulu and Nana was announced at a press conference to a shocked audience. A team of Chinese scientists led by He Jiankui (b. 1984) used a gene-editing technique called CRISPR-Cas9 in an attempt to lessen Lulu and Nana’s vulnerability to the HIV virus. 

The procedure was widely criticised for the risks posed to the twins and to the trust placed in science and scientists. He Jainkui was later jailed. The scientific community has struggled to apportion collective responsibility for experiments such as these. And, as for Lulu and Nana, they have been hidden from public view to protect them from the repercussions of the illegal and controversial experiment that led to their birth.

The many different scientific findings generated using twins have changed and challenged how we see ourselves. Science has also helped to create many more twins through fertility treatments and (sometimes questionable) biotechnologies. Now in the digital age, twin science is shaping virtual worlds.

We may be slowly getting used to the idea of avatars of ourselves in a virtual setting, but a digital twin could be something more. Powered by artificial intelligence, combining many different kinds of biological and environmental data, digital twins test ‘what if’ scenarios—optimizing surgical procedures on a digital model of your heart, for example, or testing how ‘you’ might respond to a drug therapy. But rather than developing health predictions taken from living twin laboratories, as in the twin research of the past, these emerging technologies encourage all of us to enter a state of permanent experimentation. It is common to view these technologies as absolutely novel. But historical terms they extend longer traditions that use twins as a way to theorize, test, and predict our futures. They also ask that we believe in twins but also challenge the values we invest in them.

This post expands and updates an article that first appeared on the Wellcome Collection website under a  CC BY 4.0 license.

William Viney  is a research associate at Imperial College London. He is the author of  Twins: Superstitions and Marvels, Fantasies and Experiments  and  Waste: A Philosophy of Things . Himself a twin, he directed the documentary short film  Twins on Twins .

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Bob Rosenthal

Psychology research 'giant' Robert Rosenthal has died

Rosenthal joined UCR 25 years ago, following a distinguished career at Harvard

research for historians book

Robert Rosenthal, a father of meta-analysis who was named one of the 20th century's top 100 psychologists, died Jan. 5 at 90.

Twenty-five years ago, following his retirement from Harvard University, Rosenthal joined the UC Riverside faculty. He was named a University Professor in 2008 by the University of California system, a distinction shared by only 40 professors in UC’s history.  

He retired from his full-time UCR professorship in spring 2018 but continued teaching part-time in UCR’s Graduate Division through fall quarter 2023. 

Rosenthal gained worldwide notoriety in 1968 with the publication of his book Pygmalion in the Classroom. It concluded that K-12 classroom outcomes are predetermined by teacher expectations. “The Pygmalion Effect,” also called “The Rosenthal Effect,” became part of the popular lexicon. He made the front page of The New York Times, and was interviewed on the Today Show by Barbara Walters.

The fame and controversy his book generated were uncomfortable for Rosenthal, who preferred the quiet life of an academic.  

With statistician Gene Glass, he co-founded modern meta-analysis, which transformed scientific research by combining studies to compound probability. He is also among the fathers of psychological principles including experimenter bias and interpersonal expectations.

In 2002, “The 100 Most Eminent Psychologists of the 20th Century” was published in the Review of General Psychology. Rosenthal is No. 84 on that list, which includes the likes of Sigmund Freud, B.F. Skinner, Ivan Pavlov, and Carl Jung.

He was chosen for tenure at Harvard over Stanley Milgram, and he inherited the Harvard office of the disgraced Timothy Leary.

For all his professional accolades, colleagues emphasize Rosenthal’s gentle nature.

“It transformed our department to have someone here who was not only a legendary authority but also about the kindest, least pretentious person you'd ever meet,” said David Funder, who first taught with Rosenthal at Harvard in the 1980s, then at UCR. “What a role model, in a field (academia) not exactly known for humility or self-effacement among its luminaries.”

“He is the most consistent person I've ever met, both in his temperament and the way he treated people," Funder said. "If an undergraduate poked their head into his office, or the president of the university happened to stop by, they would both find themselves treated exactly the same way -- with kindness, respect, and genuine interest.”

Peter Blanck was Rosenthal’s friend and colleague since 1979. Blanck is a University Professor at Syracuse University who collaborated with Rosenthal on many research papers, including “The Appearance of Justice,” in 1985, which parlayed the Pygmalion classroom dynamic to the courtroom. 

“The word that comes to mind is ‘mensch’; if there ever was a mensch, it was Bob,” Blanck said, referring to the Yiddish word meaning “person of noble character.” “He was a giant, but you would never know his stature from talking to him.”

Rosenthal’s wife, MaryLu, predeceased him in 2010. He is survived by three children, Roberta, David, and Virginia, and six grandchildren. 

To read a 2018 profile of Rosenthal marking the 50th anniversary of “Pygmalion in the Classroom,” follow this link .

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