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"Historians had been better in studying past politics than past social and economic life. historical studies had tended to concentrate on events, and on the motives of individuals and institutions, and they had been less well equipped for analyzing the more anonymous processes and structures that were located in the longue duree. Structures and processes seemed to have been neglected. All this was to be changed by broadening the scope of historical studies: by adding more economic and social history, in its own right, and as a key to understanding history in general."

"The social sciences had tools to offer in the study of dimensions of the past that were "beneath" or "behind" historical institutions, events, and ideas (dimensions such as economic change, population growth, social inequality and mobility, mass attitudes and behavior, social protest, and voting patterns), tools that the historians did not possess: quantitative methods; analytic concepts like class, role expectations, or status discrepancy; models of social change. Some historians sought now to use such 'mass data' as marriage registers, elections results, and tax documents, and for this the turn to the social sciences proved indispensable."

"Of course, the field of American history up into the 1960s was a simpler, more restrictive place resembling an old boys' club, with leading scholars training their successors in elite departments reserved mostly for Protestant white men."

"But historians not only spend inordinate amounts of time with the dead, they work in a field where all the stories have been told, all the questions answered. Joan of Arc is martyred, Hitler invades Czechoslovakia: predictable and depressing." ~ Elliott Gorn


By definition and tradition, history requires written records that can be reviewed and evaluated. Before that is "pre-history" which has been the domain of anthropologists and archaeologists. Often, oral history of now lost peoples has been placed with myth and legend or folklore.

History has frequently been seen as the common memory of a people and a memory that gives people an identity and a place in the world. History gives people immortality. It also captures shared ideas, values, and experiences and may shape future ideas, values, and experiences. The Serbs are a good example of that as they continue to focus on their past while ignoring the future. However, collective or common memory may have little to do with the truth and more to do with myth that makes people feel good.

Winners Write History

Stories are often created to advance particular political, social or economic views. Historians tend to come from and represent the "winners" in a society. For example, until very recently those who lost a war rarely had an opportunity to record history from their perspective and have it shared with a meaningful audience. It will not amaze that much traditional history is about males and the rich or powerful. Once certain assumptions are made, historians may ignore sources contrary to those assumptions. European history relies on European observers, even when that history focuses on developing countries or colonial experiences.

History May Be Rewritten Each Generation

The historical record is an interpretation. In a very real sense, historians create history--it does not exist by itself. Historians decide what to study. They select some facts and ignore others. Many events are ambiguous and need to be interpreted. Interpretations are likely to reflect typical, strongly held views. As each generation, looks at the historical record (evidence) it may arrive at a different interpretation of what happened or what the happening means (the "so what").


History is the study of the past. History is what happened in the past. Historians may study anything that is in the past and affected human beings. One definition says that history is "all that has been felt, thought, imagined, said and done by human beings." However, human beings have generally been limited to the rich and powerful, especially military and political leaders. Thus, history may be seen as great deeds.

If history is limited to recorded (non-oral) evidence, history is what has been recorded about the past.


Using written records, historian attempt to reconstruct the past. They focus on the identification, evaluation, and linking relevant records to learn more about when and where an event happened.

As mentioned above, why an event happened or what difference it made is almost always the result on an interpretation. Different historians, examining the same evidence, may arrive at quite different conclusions. Because of this variability, some argue that history is more of an art than a science. Facts are organized, analyzed, and interpreted to tell a particular story. Thus, the historian creates history by selecting events, facts, and then telling the story.

History Is Not a Subject But a Mode Of Thought

All subjects may be studied historically. Thus, history is the most heterogeneous discipline. "Sooner or later, everything falls into the historian's net." History is either the "Mother subject" or merely the "past" of all the topics studied by the other disciplines and professions. For example, does music history belong to history or to music?

History As Story

If history is a compelling story, particularly one that shapes a culture or a people's identity, then is surely must be part of the humanities. Indeed, for a considerable time, many historians thought of history as part of literature. Even today, literature and history have strong linkages.

History as orientation, indoctrination to prepare society for the future

Given the role of history in creating national identity, there has been, and continues to be, strong attempts by some leaders and some historians to create and use historical events for police ends. Unhappily, history as indoctrination continues to be popular with some political leaders. Evidence-based historical study, especially if it goes against popular notions, is not popular in some circles.


Without written evidence, there is no history. Since historians work with the evidence that survived, the record is likely to be incomplete or biased. What about the evidence that did not survive? How complete is the story that we do know? Those who witness and record events are not likely to be wholly disinterested.

Primary source is evidence created by some one who witnessed the event. Primary sources are the "stuff" of history. Most remain unpublished and some are scattered in collections in distant places. Some primary sources in government agencies may be difficult to locate or placed behind a security firewall of some kind. Primary source material held by individuals and corporations may also be unavailable to the historian.

History As a Social Science

Until recently, history was placed in the humanities. UNESCO still refuses to consider history as part of the social sciences. It is only in the last few years that the notion of "scientific history" has become popular. The notion is that the actual event may be reconstructed by a systematic, objective inquiry that identifies, retrieves, evaluates, and interprets a wide variety of evidence. Considerable attention is given to the genuineness and credibility of the documents examined.

For history to be scientific, there must be comparison of similar events that may lead to generalizations. Given examination of enough revolutions, for example, the political historian could move on to examine and theorize about the model event or the event in the abstract with its attributes and associations.

Not all agree. Some continue to argue that history is not a science but a myth--a form of literature. Here, the historian is seen as novelist, creating a synthesis from a collection of evidence and transforming that synthesis into a compelling story.

Predictability is central to a scientific discipline. Certainly, some historians believe that broad laws of of historical development based on the pattern of many events can be identified and that these will allow reasonable prediction. For example, based on the study of past revolutions, the political historian will be able to predict future ones. Scientific history places more emphasis on why rather than who, what, where, and how. There is also more emphasis on institutional roles.

Increased government regulation and more accurate record keeping has created a detailed historical record in most developed countries which allows historians to work with reasonably large data sets. Population history and political history which examines voting or public opinion are good examples. Economic history also is relatively data rich. With large sets of data, historians can create models that are more likely to have predictive power. As this type of research becomes more popular, it encourages historians to focus on recent periods where data is more available.

Borrowing From Other SS Disciplines

As history has become more inclusive, borrowing from the other social science disciplines has increased. Economic history borrows heavily from economics. Cultural histories borrow from sociology and anthropology as well as from the humanities. Political history borrows from political science and so on.


This is one of the most notable trends in recent historical research. Researchers in the United States have led in identifying, retrieving, and creating data sets based upon topics, such as political and economic history where data is more easily found.


This famous French school or approach to historical research was established by Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch in 1929. They moved away from event-oriented history to social history focusing on the structures within which human life occurred. There was increased interest in the lives of ordinary people and in including more insights from other disciplines. This may be called "total history" rather than the traditional political or institutional history. The Annales school was similar to the "New History" popular in the U.S. through the 1930s. Annales researchers were interested in material factors: climate, food, and disease for example. Statistical data was used where ever possible.

Contemporary history

There is considerable dispute about whether contemporary history can really be history. The notion here is that passions are too much of a problem and that some distance from the event, 25 years is frequently mentioned, is necessary for the passions to die an the evidence to become available as the principals pass away and their papers become available to historians. It is common for historical figures to deny access to their papers until those involved are no longer alive.

Brief History of History

Since history requires written evidence, it began with those in the Fertile Crescent and Egypt who recorded religious and political events on papyrus rolls or clay tablets. The Greeks are often thought of as the first historians [484-425 BCE] because their historical writings were more organized and systematic. Herodotus is sometimes called the father of history as we know it. Political and military history dominated. "History is past politics and politics is present history."

History and literature were inseparable for centuries since history was part of the humanities and history was written in the literary mode.

Each age writes its own history, interpreting the past in the light of the present. Historical events are used to explain or enhance contemporary life. Serious collection and preservation of historic documents began in the 1500s.

After the industrial revolution, interest in economic history grew substantially.

Historians were amateurs until the 1800s in Germany where Leopold von Ranke invented modern academic history. He focused on collecting primary source material and objective facts which could then be examined critically. As history became more academic, it became less popular. The gap between "popular" and academic history began to grow. Amateur historians flourish, but outside the academic discipline. They are active in genealogy, local history, and topical history, i.e. railroad or military history.

In 1859, Historische Zeitschrift was established. It became the first scholarly historical periodical which still survives. In 1884, the American Historical Association was established. By the 1890s, the new, rigorous academic history was well established in Germany and the U.S.

By the1860s, young American students and scholars had returned from Europe, Germany especially, embued with the scientific spirit of inquiry. In 1876, the first American History Seminar was held at Johns Hopkins. The establishment of the AHA in 1884 began the professionalization process in the U.S. By now, the split between amateur and professional was clearly visible. Those who made a living writing history now amateurs while those who mostly teach students became professionals. State and local historical societies grew rapidly. As history as it becomes professionalized, there is less "story" in history. History becomes a product for other historians. In the beginning, political (institutional) history was popular.

History has traditionally been used as a means of social and political education. Assimilation, shared values, and the "melting pot" theory assumed that immigrants would become Americans and identify with American history. This was an important role for history in public K12 education.

There was an explosion of academic history programs in the 1960s and 1970s. This produced an explosion in the secondary literature, especially in the periodical literature. It became increasingly difficult for the historian to keep up with literature. At the same time, the new social history bloomed. The war in Vietnam led historians away from national institutions. Interest in previously disadvantaged groups increased, especially as members of these groups demanded that their own story be told. History shifted from "the public life of the nation to the private lives of its citizens. These historians focused on those previously deemed unworthy of study such as women, children, native Americans, and the poor. Every day life became a popular research topic. At the same, there was increased interest in the history of the non-Western world. Some historians see the result of these changes as the "fragmentation of the past."

Popular Topics

In the past few years, these topics have become more popular:


There are about 40,000 professional historians in the U.S. and nearly 60 percent are employed in academe. The job market is bleak except for replacement positions. Historians are also found in historical associations, archives, museums, government, and in some public schools. About 1000 academic institutions offer BA programs, about 500 the MA, and there are more than 100 PH.D.. programs. The leading Ph.D. institutions are: Harvard, Yale, UCB, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, Wisconsin, Chicago, Michigan, and Cornell.

Leading Periodicals

The American Historical Review was established in 1895 as the membership periodical for the American Historical Association. It is issued five times per year. At least half of each issue consists of reviews. Of the 4,000 or so books received in a typical year, 1000 are reviewed. Reviewers are required to have published at least one monograph. The typical review is about 650 words. The "American" in the title refers to the name of the society and not to the scope. The AHR is inclusive and includes history from all places and times. As the membership and flagship periodical, this is probably the single best collection development source for the research-oriented library. Review comments are evaluative and often critical

The Journal of American History is the membership periodical of the Organization of American Historians. It was established in 1914 and is a quarterly publication. Typically, it includes about 600 reviews per year in American history. A typical review is 500 words. An essential source for nearly every library selecting in this area.

Choice is the periodical most often used by college and some large public libraries for selecting historical materials. All reviewers are college history teachers. Reviews often appear 8 months or so before those in the history periodicals. However, Choice does not review as many titles and some historical works are found under non-history subject headings. Choice reviews are also likely to be less critical than those in the specialist periodicals.

Sub disciplines

Traditionally, historians have specialized by place, time, and topic. A large number of history courses include geographic descriptors such as the history of Spain. Obviously, the U.S. has received the most attention.

Historians also specialize by time or historical period. Typical period categories include:

The range of dates associated with a particular period may vary from scholar to scholar. Typically, about 60 percent of history courses include a chronological descriptor.

Topical or thematic specializations may be confusing because of the large number of topics or themes and the lack of standardization in descriptors. May topics overlap. Typically, about half of all history courses include a topical frame. These specializations are growing in popularity while contributing to the fragmentation of the discipline.

The most popular historical specialties:

"History is really an umbrella term covering a wide variety of specializations that have little in common with each other but their method."

Political and diplomatic history has been the mainstream of history in the past, especially since archival research began in the 1800s.

Economic history really began to flourish in the 1900s. It often includes business history in its broader context. This is also a specialty within the discipline of economics.

Social and intellectual history is history with the politics and battles removed. It is often popular with the intelligent lay person. Categories might include:

Current literary theory has had considerable impact on social history. Popular culture also plays an important role. There is growing fascination with the evidence of material culture, especially history of popular culture.

Subdivisions From JAH



Biography is popular with the ordinary reader. Recent trends in biographical research and writing, including the use of psychological insights, have been controversial. Not all biography is objective and evidence based. Campaign biographies are a good example of that.

Local history

Local history is usually published by local or regional historical societies. Authors are usually amateur historians of varying experience and knowledge. Local history may be merely the accumulation of detail and lacking in analysis and interpretation. Local history and genealogy may overlap.

Oral history

In the past, important historical figures often recorded their experiences in diaries and letters. With this sort of documentary evidence no longer available, oral history may fill the gap. The interviewer with tape or video recorder ask questions and records responses. Oral history is a good way to capture the experiences of working class people. The Columbia University Oral History Collection was one of the first. Interviews are transcribed and then made available for analysis and interpretation.

Attitudes Toward History

In 1776, there was much historical awareness and thinking by lawyers and government ministers who saw the revolution within a rich historical context [history as the usable past]. Americans were conscious of their role in history, as part of a great cosmic drama unfolding. Until recently, theme of inevitable triumph over adversity and progress toward a millennium sanctioned by Divine Providence was widely accepted. Manifest Destiny is a good example of this thinking.

In contrast, today few government leaders have a historical perspective or are interested in history.

The great historians of the past such as Bancroft, Turner, the Beards, and Hofstadter, "combined elegant prose and sweeping synthesis in ways rarely seen today." This failure to write for a lay audience may explain why commercial publishers are must less interested in history today than in the past.


Santayana is famous for his statement that "He who doesn't know the past is condemned to repeat it." The contrary view is that every historical event is unique so that knowing the past does not allow one to safely navigate the future. McLuhan said that "History is the rear view mirror through which people mistakenly look at the present."



Given the wider variety of topics of interest to historians, fragmentation is a visible problem. William McNeill comments on the "disappearance of a coherent, intelligible history...." Crone adds that "We've reached the absurd situation in which everybody is frantically trying to write books and articles that nobody has time to read because everybody is busy writing books and articles." As historians write more specialized works for a small, specialist audience, interest in popular history blooms as seen on the History Channel. However, few historians write that kind of history.


There is some question about the degree to which the historical record reflects what actually happened. Historians can re-create only a small section of the past. Historical events, taken in their context, are notably complex. As mentioned above, history is an interpretation of the past rather than a recreation of it. Historians select relevant sources, relevant data, and relevant facts. The historian, perhaps more than the record, determines what is recreated.

Memory is unreliable and recollections change over the course of our lives. As we remember, we may create a past that justifies and sustains our self-esteem. Data about historical events based on memory, especially some time after that event, may not be reliable.


One definition of history is that it is the custodian of our collective memory. History, then, is the primary vehicle for socialization of the young and bringing together the various elements of a society. This is particularly important when that society is heterogeneous.

History may also be an integral part of an indoctrination program that manipulates individuals in attempt to move a society in certain "approved" directions. Those who wish to use historical events to indoctrinate are not likely to be comfortable with historians who ask difficult questions or provide evidence that well loved assumptions are in error.

Interdisciplinary Approaches

There is growing interest among historians in interdisciplinary approaches. Area studies are a good example. American (really U.S.), Russian, or East Asian (area) studies rely heavily on history but also on other social science and humanities disciplines. Women's studies is similar. Economic, political, and social/cultural history involve substantial interdisciplinary components.

What Historical Record?

The changing nature of the historical record is a topic of continuing concern. By definition, history is based upon written evidence and we live at a time when written evidence may have a short life. This is particularly the case with digital messages such as email or participation in discussion lists or news groups. At the same time, fewer individuals keep diaries or a substantial paper correspondence.

At the same time, micro formats and digital records, the American Memory Project is an example, provide access to primary source material previously unavailable or available only to those who can travel to a remove site.

Historical Revision

Historical revision is the process of reinterpreting the past on the basis of new evidence or of new interpretations of existing evidence. It is quite common. However, it has become more popular in the past few years because those who deny the holocaust call themselves "revisionists." However, it is difficult to claim a new interpretation of events in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. As one critic noted, "Holocaust-denial materials are based on deliberate fabrications of the historical record and are offensive not only to Jewish persons, but to anyone who believes that history should be an accurate record of the past (or as accurate as possible)."

The major publishers of Holocaust-denial material in the U.S. are the Institute for Historical Review and the Noontide Press. The WWW has proven to be an excellent vehicle for making this "revisionist" thinking accessible to many people in a format that seems "scholarly."

Photo duplication

Photo duplication has made a dramatic difference in the conduct of historical research. With photo duplication widely available, the historian could copy large amounts of primary source material and then read, ponder, analyze at leisure.

Professional Information Issues

Historians, perhaps more than other social scientists, need an information system. They must develop techniques to identify, scan, index, file and retrieve large amounts of written material relative for their projects. Most still use note cards, sometimes thousands of them.

Language used is often imprecise and ambiguous. Authority control for dates, and proper names [people and places] is a continuing problem.

Advocacy and Objectivity

From the beginning, historians and non-historians have attacked the objectivity of historical research. While there have always been historians who were advocates for a particular viewpoint, there may be more today than in the past. Revisionist history is historical research that defies the conventional truths. For example, revisionist history represents the view of the disadvantaged and the ordinary. It is less Euro centric and more global in its orientation. As you might imagine, this is controversial stuff. At one time, the U.S. Senate on a 99-1 vote declared a revisionist curriculum to be "anti-American." Whose history should be taught? As one proponent of the new history said, many feel that students should not learn that " every society's history is full of paradox, ambiguity, and irresolution."


There is still some controversy about historical research that is focused on data sets. Because data is often limited, this orientation limits historical research to certain topics and periods where data is likely to be available. Too, there is the question about the validity and reliability of the data used and its interpretation.

Poor Instruction

Poor teaching of history in K12 education, especially when focused on names and dates, has caused many Americans to believe that history is boring and irrelevant to daily life. One critic notes that high school history texts are 'about as exciting as listening to an eight-hour speech by Fidel Castro." Vivid events are "lost in a rush of names and dates." As Elaine May says, "high school history, in my memory, made students docile, unquestioning, and passive."

In contrast, museums that make history immediate and interesting are popular with children and adults. All the adults engaged in Civil War enactments, for example, are certainly serious about history. Family history or genealogy is enormously popular.



Although many historians remain suspicious of the web because there is so much disinformation on it, a growing number of substantial resources are available that include useful primary source material. While these sites are more likely to be used by teachers than scholars, they may be useful to some scholars and many graduate students. Here are a few examples:

Historians want primary sources since historical research is to be an "original" contribution. Secondary sources are also useful to provide access to the published literature. State and regional periodicals are especially important for U.S. history. As expected, scholars work backward through the literature [pearl fishing] and are not heavy users of indexing and abstracting services. Graduate students are more likely to use these services.

Humanities Abstracts [or Index] includes more historical material than the companion Social Science Abstracts. These popular H.W. Wilson resources are useful for undergraduate students, but are not likely to be used by scholars. Selected full text is included from 1995.

America: History and Life began in 1964. History is broadly defined and here includes some cultural anthropology, women's and gender studies, social history, and history of particular fields. About 2000 periodicals are covered with 75 to 125 word abstracts. "America" includes the U.S. and Canada. Dissertation abstracts and some book and media reviews are also included. About 90 percent of the articles were published in English. There is little retrospective coverage. Monographic publications are not consistently included. Abstracts contain minimal information. Critics say that the descriptors are inadequate. Periodicals are not indexed from cover to cover since articles must be at least 3 pages long. About 16,000 new entries are added each year. Searching is not as intuitive as it might be, but is much better in the CD-ROM version. Historical Abstractsts is similar. Note that it ONLY covers historical periods from 1450 forward and in literature issued from 1955. It adds about 21,000 entries each year.

Arts and Humanities Citation Index began in 1975- and is part of the ISI citation index family. The print version is difficult to use. Descriptors are problematic. Covers much of the historical literature. The citation linkages can be valuable in showing the linkages between published work. It is rarely used by historians.

The various editions of Sociological Abstracts can be useful for history because of the overlap between social history and historical sociology.

PAIS can be useful for recent political history, administrative history and perhaps economic history.

The Combined Retrospective Index Set to Journals in History, 1838 - 1974 is a useful convenience package for those who have access to a library that holds it. The keyword indexing is problematic.

History Reviews Online began in 1995. Reviewers must at least be completing requirements for the PH.D. HRO reviews books and on-line materials.

Typical scholarly information problems

The irony is there is too much material, but never enough of the right material. The number of historical books increased by 53% from 1980 - 1991.

Because of budgetary problems, local collections are increasingly inadequate and ILL can be a painful experience. Shrinking travel budgets make it more difficult for many historians to travel to better, distant collections. Increased collection emphasis on serials has reduced the amount of mony that many libraries spend on monographs.

Inadequate subject access remains a problem. Standard date and time span indicators are needed. Standardized geo-political unit names and the names major historical figures would also be most helpful. Even topic or theme names may vary from source to source.

Much primary source material is relatively invisible. Better intellectual access to collections of papers is sorely needed, but would be expensive for the host library.

The Research Library

For many years, history was the heart of the library's collections and historians have been the library's most enthusiastic users. History consisted mainly of political, constitutional, and some religious documents. Collections emphasized political - administrative sources. Archives were seen as the political memoirs of nations. Most historians are bibliophiles and see the library as their laboratory. Human interest in history created the need for libraries. Earlier, many historians were also librarians. Even today, many librarians have a background in history. There is some tradition of historians meeting their own bibliographic needs.

Historians are frequent library users. Historians have high expectations of the research library. Historians and librarians usually work well together. Still, historians don't consult with librarians much. In fact, historians are trained to do their own literature searching and this is very much at the heart of what a historian does. Browsing is an important part of this process. Reference librarians are often ignored because they are seen as generalists who lack the depth of knowledge needed by the historian. Historians do consult with special collections librarians, subject bibliographers, and archivists because they often have substantial subject knowledge.

Since no library can have a comprehensive historical collection, historians are heavy users of ILL. Prompt, efficient ILL services make a considerable difference to the historian.

Local history has always been the building block of state and national history. Libraries have not always done a good job of collecting broadly in this area. The unique responsibility of each library is to develop a comprehensive local history collection for its community, including government publications, local newspapers and periodicals. Many local history publications are not indexed

Classification remains a difficult problem. Historical material is hopelessly scattered in L.C. schedules. Religious history is in the Bs. Political history is in the Js. There is much more to history than what is found in the C - F schedules. Historians need intellectual access for chronological and geographical aspects. There is an obvious need for well-developed, controlled vocabularies. Authority control for names and dates is essential. Obsolete subject headings are a continuing problem. For example, "European War" instead of World War I. Historian's language is a melange of words and phrases from everyday life. It is often notably different from the language used by the Library of Congress. Periodization is often a problem since the periods, e.g. France, 1789-1914, may be arbitrary or based upon a particular interpretation of events.

Current Awareness

Rapid growth in the literature creates many problems. Book reviews are important because of the evaluative information about new books. Perhaps as many as 40 percent of new U.S. history books not reviewed outside historical periodicals. Works issued by government agencies are rarely reviewed. The smaller, more specialized scholarly history periodicals have the least overlap. However, because of considerable time lag, these reviews only useful for retrospective collection development purposes. Historically, browsing has been important to historians and browsing in the library, especially the new book shelf, is another way to keep current.


Bibliographies are heavily used, but historians are less concerned about currency and keeping up with the literature. There is less use of indexing and abstracting services. These are inconvenient because until recently they were only available at the library. They are usually dated. Subject access is often inadequate, especially by time [or period]. On-line data bases yield too many items with no obvious distinction between the good and the trivial. Indexing and abstracting services do not evaluate the quality, originality, or utility of an item. Abstracts do not provide enough information to make a relevance decision. Use of these sources is not efficient. It is difficult to codify an inquiry by topic, period, country, subject, or method. Lack of a precise vocabulary is a continuing problem.

Literature Use

Political science has been an important contributor to the literature of history, sometimes accounting for as much as 50 percent of the older history literature in the U.S. There is considerable subject dispersion with the traditional history classes--C,D, E, and F--accounting for only 33 percent of the citations. Political science is still the most often cited of the other social sciences, at lease 20 percent and some increase recently. Social science in the Hs accounts for about 11 percent and is growing in importance to historians. Law remains important with about 6 percent of the citations.

As expected, historians frequently use older material. In U.S. history, as much as 70 percent of the material cited is older than 25 years.

More so than most social scientists, historians speak of the importance of serendipity or browsing to discover accidental relationships. The ability of the historian to browse collections in person is important. Context is important to historians. Not just the text of those who were present at the event, but everything from the time of the event can be used to place the event in context. Serendipity often reveals relevant contextual items.

Digital Resources

Digital resources present opportunities for the historian:

There are also problems:

While time will certainly assist in solving some of these problems, they will likely persist in the short term. Accuracy is crucial in historical research and many historians remain skeptical about the accuracy and completeness of primary source material available via the Internet.

Primary sources

Primary sources--original documentation by those who were at the even--are absolutely essential. Primary sources might include texts, correspondence, diaries, and governmental proceedings. Newspaper accounts of those on the scene have also been heavily used. There has been relatively little use of nonprint materials, but the Vanderbilt Television News Archive illustrates the utility of video material as primary sources. Data sets such as census material would also qualify. Often, primary source material is unpublished and is found in special collections or archives. Oral history is increasingly important. In the past few years, much useful source material has been filmed and is now available for purchase in large microformat sets. These are often very expensive, intellectual access may be a problem, and the microformat tends to be unpopular with users.

Social/cultural history places some emphasis on ephemera and popular material that libraries have been reluctant to collect. Primary source materials to support research on the history of popular culture might include menus, catalogs, popular sheet music, comic books, pulp magazines, and a wide range or ephemera or vertical file material.

Special collections and archives are important because they contain unique collections of primary source material. Historical societies are often important for U.S. history. Researchers will need to travel to remote collections. Some special collections favor local versus external scholars. It may be difficult to identify which special collection or archive holds what, since many of these collections have limited intellectual access. Much material is not cataloged and finding aids are limited to the most popular collections. Subject access may be non-existent or marginal.

Secondary sources

Secondary sources--written by those not there using primary materials--are important too The monograph, a book-length treatment of a single subject, often published by university presses, remains the single most important secondary source and the primary mode of presenting historical research.

Foreign Language use

The importance of foreign language competency varies notably with the historical topic. Obviously, foreign language material is essential for those interested in the history of foreign places. A wide range of foreign language items will interest the historian. German, French, and Spanish languages are especially important. Use studies indicate that relatively little foreign language material is actually used by the average historian.


Historical material does not normally cumulate or become obsolete so that older sources remain useful and heavily used. Preservation and conservation are a continuing concern. Out of print material is a problem, especially with replacements or retrospective collection development. Preservation a growing problem. Both primary and secondary source materials are turning into dust. Only a few are likely to be preserved.


Microforms have been the favored preservation medium for historical materials. If well done, microformats will last for several hundred years. Digital media are still suspect and there is the "refreshing" problem. Librarians like the space-saving feature of microforms, but don't like the fact that many sets are very expensive. Many unique items are available only in this format. Historians don't like microforms for all of the obvious reasons:

History Publishing

Academic publishing of historical monographs may sell no more than 500 - 1,000 copies. Much of the market for serious historical monographs is institutional and library book budgets have declined in recent years. U.S. history sells better than foreign. Some popular history subjects do much better. Civil War history is a good example because it appeals to many enthusiasts. Historical works with broader scope have better sales because they may reach a larger audience.


Thoughtful popularizations are popular with teachers. Print, video, and digital formats are useful in the classroom. Material needs to be colorful, appealing, and age.

Library of Congress created the American Memory or the National Digital Library Program in 1989. A wide variety of major collections of primary source material is now available via the web. There is an amazing depth, range, and diversity of items in multiple media and perspectives. Truly, this is a national treasure. There are a growing number of excellent www sites, such as A & E's Biography site. There are also many terrible ones and it may be difficult for many to tell the difference between fact and fiction.

Biography, including autobiography, remains enormously popular with many teachers. The Dictionary of American Biography is now available on CD-ROM. Gale¹s Biography and Genealogy Master Index is a marvelous source and is available in several editions.

Interested Adults

Many adults are interested in popular history, often about events that happened earlier in their life. Many are interested in history as it relates to a hobby or leisure interest. For example, the railroad modeler is interested in detailed railroad history and the airplane modeler is interested in detail aviation history about particular airplanes. History is quite popular. American Heritage has long been well received and well read. The History Channel is popular for those with cable television. Short, clearly written, and well-illustrated works sell and circulate well. Biographical information continues to be popular. Military history is popular with many men.

Amateur historians need how to do it material, especially for family and local history. Family history in particular may require expensive comprehensive collections and amateur historians may require considerable hand holding. Friends groups are often interested in funding genealogical collections. Some libraries discourage genealogists. Properly handled, they may become enthusiastic and powerful advocates for library collections and services. They are often determined and quickly become regular library users. Most novice genealogists lack basic research skills and will need help. However, they are usually determined, enthusiastic, and learn quickly. Many genealogy queries will involve use of Census materials. Every library should have a copy of The Librarian's Genealogy Notebook: A Guide to Resources by Dahrl Moore, Ancestry's Red Book: American State, County & Town Sources, and Val Greenwood's Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. All but the smallest public library should provide basic handbooks, guides and a selected list of comprehensive WWW sites. larger libraries will need Genealogical & Local History Books in Print, the Genealogy Annual, and the Periodical Source Index.

While there are several areas of history that can be controversial, the best known example is the Holocaust denial literature. If one believes that the library ought to provide an opportunity for adults to experience and evalute the logic and the evidence of controversial views, some of this material should be available. However, Holocaust denial literature is so objectionable to many that it is unusual to find it in any library, public or academic. Only a few large academic libraries will hold extremist materials.

The library literature focuses on the scholarly audience and the research library. Reference service to other audiences receives less attention.


While some students enjoy history, most student use is correlated to particular school assignments. Public libraries need to work closely with local school library media specialists to insure that they are aware of social studies or U.S. history assignments likely to place heavy demands on libraries.

Many historical questions can be answered by the encyclopedia collection, but many teachers prohibit the use of encyclopedias. Fact books, handbooks, and specialized encyclopedias are popular. Chronologies, such as the Encyclopedia of American Facts and Dates or the Chronology of World History by Mellersh and Williams, are often in demand. Often, students may need pictures for a report. While many will find these in the CD-ROM reference works bundled with their computer or on the web, some will search in the library. Sources with larger print, clear tables and figures, illustrations, and which are easy to use will be popular.

Gale now provides the "History Resource Center: US" an Internet database that provides access to full-text documents, periodical articles, and multi-media in an integrated collection of facts, primary documents, and scholarly analysis. "Overall, the source encompasses some 25,000 narrative biographies; over 15,000 essays and overviews of events, topics, and eras; almost 200,000 full-text articles; over 1300 images; and 34 original maps from Yale." Easily used, with an engaging interface, and an excellent introduction to historical research, this would appeal to high school and many college students. More information is available the History Resource Center: U.S. WWW site. It is likely that such convenience packages will increase in the future and will be especially popular in libraries serving high school students and college undergraduates.



To what degree should the library support the needs of the amateur historian?


How might a public library develop and maintain a reasonably comprehensive local history collection?


Historians typically do not use indexing and abstracting services. Is this a problem? If yes, what should the academic librarian do about it?


Microformats are a good preservation medium, but tend to be under used because of user dislike. What might the librarian to do stimulate the use of this expensive resources?


The historical record seems to be disappearing and it is likely that many digital documents will be deleted and return to the vapor. What, if anything, should information professionals do about this.


A Few Web Sites

Comprehensive Sites has guides to a variety of history topics. This one is devoted to ancient history.

Lycos also has a guide to history resources on the Internet.


AlternaTime is a collection of timelines for various topics.

Social History,

The International Institute of Social History is particularly strong in labor and women's history with links to scholarly work.

HyperHistory Online includes color coded timelines for events from the past 3000 years.

U.S. History

The History place provides essays and links on a good variety of topics.

Biography of America is attractive and includes good content.

Cornell University's Making of America is a digital collection of useful primary source material.

Military History

This extensive collection of campaign atlases by the History Department at the U.S. Military Academy. More than 400 color maps.

America at War has good time lines and details about wars and military campaigns.

Here is an excellent military history site from Canada. You may browse by period or by subject.

History for K12 Audiences

the Access Indiana Teaching & Learning Center Subject Guide to History/Social Studies includes a variety of helpful links for K12 teachers.

History Matters from George Mason and the City University of New York is a rich source for HS and college history teachers of U.S. history.


Yale University, in its excellent subject guide series, has a subject guide for American History and American Studies.

The New York Public Library has created a useful guide to Selected Internet Resources in History.

Genealogy's genealogy guide is especially helpful for beginners.

Cyndi's List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet is probably the largest collection of genealogy links. Weekly updates.

RootsWeb also claims to the the largest site of WWW links. Good coverage of genealogy mailing lists.

Ancestry Home Town is a fee-based service, but some files are free including the Social Security Death Index and the World Tree.

The USGenWeb Project hopes to have a WWW page and linked information from each state and county in the U.S. Created by volunteers.

AfriGeneas is an excellent site for those interested in ancestors of African descent. Good beginner's guide. Available informatin varies notably from state to state. Surnames database is useful.

The National Archives and Records Genealogy Page describes its census, immigration, and military records.

GenDoor is a genealogy search engine.

Cemetery records are often important in genealogy. contains searchable information for over 1700 world cemeteries, most in the U.S. Cemetery Junction is not well organized but lists over 18,000 cemeteries in the U.S.

For younger students, My History is America's History provides useful information on family history.

Historical maps

Historical Atlas of the Twentieth Century is sometimes opinionated and is nearly always fascinating. Many useful, often thematic, maps illustrate major events or situations.

A Few Print Sources


Perhaps the single best source is The Librarian's Genealogy Notebook by Elizabeth D. Moore. Includes coverage of the reference interview, annotated biblliographies, and a variety of essential topics.

Ancestry's Red Book provides a rich variety of sources for each state and the District of Columbia. Country and town information is especially helpful.

Two especially useful guides to genealogical resources are Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records by Kory Meyerink and The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy by Loretta Szucs and Sandra Luebking.

Family History Resources on the Internet by the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota is especially useful for ethnic group sources.

The Exercises

1. The William C. Robinson Memorial Library has just received volume 2 of the Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas [MesoAmerica]. Since other Cambridge histories are shelved in the Reference Department, your colleague wants to do the same with this set. Examine this source and provide a rationale for placing this set either in the reference room or in the stacks. Focus on the degree to which the Cambridge histories are "genuine" reference works. Who would use them and how?

2. A faculty member wishes you to order the Times History of the World edited by Richard Overy. You have some questions about the utility of this work. First, what is it? An atlas? A history? If it is "real" reference work, what information would it provide that could not be found in any of the standard sources already on the reference shelves? Select a topic to compare coverage in this work with standard ones.

3. A faculty member in the history department needs help in creating a home page with links to sources in American women's history. Identify, and evaluate a few comprehensive sites. You might begin with American Women's History: a Research guide. Would ViVAa Bibliography of Women's History in Historical and Women's Studies Journals be useful? Other good sites?

3a. A student interested in U.S. history wants to know if primary historical documents may be found on the www. You might begin with The American Colonist: a treasury of primary documents or the Nineteenth Century Documents Project. Other useful sites? How easy would it be for this student to find these same documents in a reasonably equipped college library?

3b. A student of genealogy visiting Great Britain is interested in locating records relating to relatives who Huguenots. You might begin with British Archives: a guide to archive resources in the UK [Ref CD 1040 .F67 1995] and Genealogical Research in England's Public Record Office: A Guide for North Americans. How helpful were these? Other useful sources?

4. A library science faculty member teaching a course in the history of the book is revising his lecture on Gutenberg. He wishes to know what notable events occurred in the 1450s when the first European book was printed from movable metal type and who might be contemporaries of Gutenberg. Which source would provide the best answer? You might begin with The Chronology of the Modern World , and Lifelines: famous contemporaries from 600 BC to 1975 [Ref CT 104 .W45]. Other useful sites? Please include some comment on the utility of time line resources.

4b. An undergraduate student seeks reliable information on Pocahontas. Begin with the general encyclopedias, then Native American sources such as Encyclopedia of Native American Biography. Which sources are best? Similarities and differences between the sources?

5. A public school teacher wants to know if Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Paul Revere's Ride" is authentic in its description of this historic event. What would you do and what can you find out?

5a. An undergraduate student needs contemporary accounts of the Spanish Civil War. What is available? Suggest an appropriate search strategy.


7. A public library patron has found a reference to Hannah Atkins as a notable American woman. What did she do? You might begin with American Women's History. Also consider Notable Black American Women [Ref E 185.96 .N68 1996], Who's Who Among African-Americans [Ref E 185.96 .W46 1994] and Black Saga: The African American Experience. To what degree are women of color found in standard biographical reference works?

8. As an academic reference librarian and Choice reviewer you have received A Companion to the American Revolution. You have noticed that several publishers are issuing "companions" on a variety of historical topics. To what degree are these reference books that should be in the reference room rather than circulating works for the stacks? Using the American Revolution work as an example, what does a companionoffer that would not be found in the usual reference works? You might also consider the larger question of what is a reference work.


9. A graduate student needs relatively recent scholarship on Gabriele D'Annunzio, the Italian patriot and political leader. You encourage her to use Historical Abstracts, but wonder if other databases would also be helpful. Which other titles would you consider? How helpful were they?


10. A patron wishes to know the population of Charlottsville, VA in 1870. Discuss your search strategy and the difficulty in locating the answer.

*11. A patron wishes to know about Thomas Jefferson's attitude toward slavery. Without too much thought, you suggest that she search America: History and Life . In retrospect, was this the best first step? Why?


13. A patron needs help in finding biographical information on Vidkun Quizling. You think of the old standard, the Chambers Biographical Dictionary [Ref CT 103 .C4 1986], but want to consider other sources such as the McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Biography [Ref CT 103 .M27] or even a more specialized source such as Who's Who in World War II [Ref D 736 .M38] or Biographical Dictionary of World War II. How does Chambers compare to other biographical sources?

13A. A patron needs help in locating information on the Theban general Epaminondas. You might begin with Who's Who in the Greek World. Other useful sources?

14. A graduate student interested in railroad history, especially in the South, wonders if there are archival or manuscript collections of primary source material that might provide enough stuff for a thesis or dissertation. What can you find? You might begin with the Directory of Archives and Manuscript repositories in the United States [Ref CD 3020 .D49 1988] and the Directory of Oral History Collections[Ref D 16.14 .Sg 1988]. Other useful sources?

15. As a reference librarian with an assignment to history, you are responsible for developing both the reference collections and the general collections housed in the stacks. Which scholarly periodicals in history would you review regularly to keep up with the field and to develop the collections? You might begin with Reviews in American History [Per Z 1236 .R47].

16. A high school student seeks information on the War of Jenkin's Ear. You might begin with the Collins Dictionary of Wars [D 25.A2B78], but also look at reference works for U.S. History. Which is best for what?

17. A high school student needs the terms of the Versailles Treaty. You might begin with the Encyclopedia of American History [Ref E174.5 .M847 1982], the Macmillan Dictionary of the First World War[ Ref D 510 .P66 1995] or the United States in the First World War: an encyclopedia [Ref D 510 .U65 1995]. Compare these answers with what you would find in your favorite general encyclopedia. Close with a comment on the value of topical reference works in history.

18. An undergraduate student taking a general world history course has found three terms in his notes that he cannot place: "Rapallo," "annales", and "Frérèche." You might begin with the Dictionary of Historical Terms [Ref D 20 .C64 1989], but look at other dictionaries too. Which one provides the best definitions of these terms? {Please do not do more than one dictionary question.}

18A. A patron needs help in understanding the meaning of these words: "dialectic," and "imperialism." She wants more than a brief dictionary definition but doesn't want to read an entire monograph either. Can you find handbooks or companions that would help?

19. A middle school student, and parent, need more information on the seven wonders of the ancient world. Compare treatment in children's, adult, and subject encyclopedias. You might also take a quick look at WWW resources. Best source?


21. A public library patron has recently read a work by William Hickling Prescott and would like to know more about him. You might begin with American Historians [Ref PS 221 .D49 ] or Great Historians of the Modern Age [Ref D 14 .G75 1991] because the titles seem appropriate. What other sources would be useful?

22. You have received requests for The Hammond Atlas of World History, The Cassell Atlas of the Early Modern World: 1492 - 1783 [REF G 1035 H389 1998], and the Cassell Atlas of the 19th Century World: 1783: 1914 [REF G 1035.H392 1998]. Compare one of these works with the standard general historical atlases. Are these worthwhile additions? Why?


24. Because of a funding problem, you are reviewing annual publications in history. A colleague has suggested that the International Bibliography of the Historical Sciences [Ref D 13.I58] could well be dropped. You say that it is one of the standards in the field. Take a careful look at this source and compare it with similar works. Could we drop this title? Why?

25. A patron needs information about the Knoxville sit-ins for a course on recent U.S. History which requires a term paper [about 10 pages] on a topic of student interest. Her professor suggested that she begin with Writings on American History [Ref E 178 .W758] and Recently Published Articles [Ref D 1 .A54], but she didn't like their looks. Would the Tennessee encyclopedia of History & Culture REF F 436 .T525 1998] be helpful? What sources would be best for providing the student with the citations for her paper? How much can you find? Please add a comment on the utility of Writings on American History and Recently Published Articles.

26. You are a library science faculty member about to teach a course in history resources and services. You are considering a text. Would United States History: a selective guide to information sources [Ref E 178 .B63 1994], Reference Sources in History: an introductory guide [Ref D 20 .F72 1990] or the Handbook for Research in American History [Ref E 178 .P72 1994] be appropriate?


28. A patron has a reference to Sojourner Truth and wishes to know more about her. You might consult and compare the Dictionary of American Biography [CT 211 .D5 1957] and Notable American Women [Ref CT 3260 .N57]. What other works were useful? A colleague notes that women are often under represented in standard biographical reference works. What do you think based upon this experience?

29. A high school student is looking for reliable material on Julius Caesar. You might begin with From Aristotle to Zoroaster:An A-to-Z Companion to the Classical World [REF CB 311 .C83 1998] or the Chronicle of the Roman Emperors by Chris Scarre. What other sources might be useful? You might also consider the Research Guide to European Historical Biography [Ref CT 759 .R4 1992]. Other useful sources?

29A. A high school teacher needs just a few comprehensive sites on U.S. history, especially for the colonial period. Identify and evaluate three to five good sites.

29B. The American Memory Project has received a great deal of media attention. Examine the American Memory WWW site, browse in a few of the collections and comment on their likely utility for K12 students and teachers.


31. A parent needs a picture that can be photocopied for an elementary school project of the Union Navy's ironclad Monitor and the Confederate Virginia (previously named Merrimack). You might begin with the Album of American History [Ref E 178.5 .A48 1981]. How helpful is a collection of images such as this as compared to finding specialized work on a subject and looking for illustrations in it? Anything useful on the WWW? Which source provided the best images of these famous warships?

32. A student in a military history course needs maps of the Revolutionary War. She is especially interested in campaigns in the South. You might begin with the Atlas of American History [Ref G1201 .S1F4 1993], Mapping America's Past: A Historical Atlas [STX G 1201 .S1C3 1996] or the Dent Atlas of American History[REF G 1201 .S1G5 1993] and the Historical Atlas of the United States [Ref 1201 .S1N3 1988]. Are these general U.S. Historical atlases useful or should you use the military history atlases sometimes not found in smaller collections?


33c. A student of military history is interested in maps of the Seven Years War. You might begin with the Cambridge Illustrated Atlas of Warfare: Renaissance to Revolution. How does this compare to similar sources?

33D. Can you find anything at the World War I Document Archive, Old Contemptible's Great War Website or at World War I: Trenches on the Web that you would not find in a hard copy reference book on WWI?

33. A patron has found a reference to the "Baghdad railway crisis" and needs some background information. You might begin with the Encyclopedia of World History [Ref D 21 .L27 1972]. Where would you go next?

34. A high school student wants to know if St. Patrick was a real person or a mythical one. You might begin with the Dictionary of the Middle Ages [Ref D 114 .D5 1982]. What other print sources would be accessible and reasonably accurate? Can you find anything useful on the web?

35. An amateur historian wonders if there is a historical society or historical periodical devoted to covered bridges. Where would you begin? Can you find such a society?



36B. A colleague wants the library to add The National Geographic Society Atlas of World History [REF G 1021 .N38 1997] to the collection. What does this work contain that is not found in other general or historical atlases?

37. You have been asked to review the U.S. History chronologies in the Department and suggest one for the ready reference shelf. At the same time, you have received a query about the Bear Flag Republic and decide to use that to compare responses in the different chronologies. You might begin with Great Dates in U.S. History [Ref E 174.5 .G7 2 1994] and the Encyclopedia of American History. or the American Heritage Encyclopedia of American History [REF E 174 .A535 1998]Which of the several chronologies is best? Why?

37a. You have been been asked to consider adding the Almanacs of American Life: Revolutionary America [Ref E 162 .P86 1994] and the Columbia Chronicles of American Life [Ref E169.1 .G667 1995]. What would these titles add to a reference collection that already contained such standard titles as A Dictionary of American History [ Ref E 174 .P87 1995], the New York Public Library American History Desk Reference [REF E 174 .N48 1997] and the Encyclopedia of American Facts and Dates [Ref E 174.5 .C3 1993].

38. A newspaper reporter has been asked to write a feature on 1902 for an early 2002 issue of the paper. She has asked for you help in identifying trends, fads, and events of 1902. Which sources were most useful for this purpose? You might begin with The People's Chronology [Ref D 11 .T83 1994].

39. A school child needs to know about the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon. Why did it become extinct? She would also like a picture to illustrate a class report.

40. A community member wants to know about registered historic places in Blount County, Tennessee. You might begin with the National Register of Historic Places [Ref E 159 .N3419 1996] or the the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Where might you go next?

41. An internet trainer has been asked to develop a workshop on comprehensive genealogical sources on the WWW. She has read about the Family Search on-line by the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints and wonders about its utility. What can you find out about this source?