A Historian At Work: The Basics, Part One

Part OnePart Two 

I realize many of you don’t know what historians DO. Don’t feel bad; most people don’t. Nor should they. If I were reading a blog about, say, civil engineering or radial oncology, I’d need some basic background because I have NO idea what civil engineers and radial oncologists do. I mean I know that engineers build dams and bridges, but that’s the beginning, middle, and end of what I know.

So, I thought I’d provide some basic background on how historians work. If you’re a historian or professional researcher, you can skip this part.

Much of my daily routine consists of doing research. I conduct that research using two kinds of material — or, as historians say: “sources” — primary and secondary materials (or “sources).

An example of primary materials, or, “primary sources” are letters written by Abraham Lincoln to his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. A secondary source is a book or essay in which a scholar (a historian) analyzes those letters.

So, for example, when I decided to write a history of Key West, Florida, I needed to learn about Ernest Hemingway, who lived in Key West for many years. To research his life, I used primary sources such as letters that Hemingway wrote to his friends and family while living in Key West.

I also relied on secondary sources, namely biographies of Ernest Hemingway. The letters (primary sources) provided Hemingway’s first-hand accounts of Key West. The biographies (secondary sources) provided details of Hemingway’s life (his childhood in Illinois, his years in Paris, etc.)

So when I’m writing a book, whether it’s a history of Key West, of beer in America, or (my current project) a history of meat, I read a wide range of material. Lots of material. What feels like an endless river of material.

And once I’ve finished the research, then I have to write the book. (Which, I might add, is a quite different task that requires a different set of skills.) Which is why I only publish a book every few years. Ain’t no way to speed up the process.

8 thoughts on “A Historian At Work: The Basics, Part One

  1. Hmmm…why do I get a feeling that you choose your subjects so that you can do things like hang out in Key West, drink beer, eat expensive meats, etc.? Well, done! Imagine writing a history of the flu or sewage treatment facilities or something like that…

  2. Oh, David . . . I spent my entire graduate career studying sewer systems, waste disposal, plumbing, water supply… (My first book, a history of American household plumbing, was based on my dissertation.)Dave: This whole “what I do thing” is a lead-up to the very thing you asked about: the impact of digitization on historians’ work.The short answer, for now, is that it’s having an extraordinary impact. Nearly dizzying. It’s changing everything: access, the speed with which we can work, ease, etc.BUT: there are also downsides to it, not least of which will, in the long run, be expectations. I have the feeling that the bar is being raised very high: “Why didn’t she know about X source! Why didn’t she consult Y and Z? Because they’re THERE, after all, for the asking.” (Where X, Y, and Z used to be hidden from sight because so obscure.)

  3. Maureen, I was more thinking along the lines of preservation of original sources. Right now letters exist from Hemingway about the key west islands. But in this age of digital media, will such accounts of our current modern era exist? Or another way to think of it is, does anyone save email anymore?

  4. Ah! Good question. Answer: I don’t know what digitization will do to such sources.But I’ve certainly thought about it, and it seems to me that saving things like, say, email requires an awareness, a self-awareness, that saving, say, a paper letter does not.Meaning: someone is going to have to say to him/herself: “My words are important and I’m important and I’m going to save my words for posterity.”Or, less grandly, they’re going to have to think ahead: is this email something I’ll want to re-read in ten years?I suspect most times the answer is no. I delete most of my email, and the ones I consciously think are worth saving, I save by printing a copy. (Mostly those are from family members or good friends.)On the other hand, “official” e-documents are being saved (eg, White House correspondence).But will, say, Barack save his messages to family /friends that he composes and sends on his very special Blackberry?But: I rather doubt Hemingway saved all of his correspondence. He or its recipients may have regarded much of it as trivial — but that takes me back to the question of self-awareness.All of which takes me back to my original (short, snappy!) answer: I don’t know.

  5. Janine: Absolutely!Although as with any source, historians have to use them with care.For example, Barack Obama’s blog, assuming he has one, probably isn’t written by him, and it’s crafted to carry specific messages to Americans. It’s not just random ramblings.But let’s say Barack kept a blog when he was in law school (impossible, given that blogs didn’t exist then) — that would be great material for a historian. It’s part of the “record” of someone’s life.Indeed, a blog is no different than, say, the text of a speech given by Rush Limbaugh or Warren Buffett or Whoever.Anything can be a source — paintings, grocery lists, bookkeeping records, speeches, television programs, newspapers.I’ve used patent records, diaries, account books, letters, newspapers, magazines, political cartoons. You name it; a historian is using it.So if someone would-be president is blogging right now, he/she needs to be careful what’s presented to the public because it will all come back to haunt them later.Think of the way google searches or drunk photos on Facebook come back to bite people when they’re applying for colleges or a job. It’s all out there. It’s all part of the “historical record.”

  6. Holy cow, I completely picked sewage treatment facilities out of thin air. What are the chances?! Though come to think of it, as essential as such things are, that is a fascinating area of study (though not as much fun as Key West and beer).Regarding using email and other digital things as primary sources, I bet there are some egomaniacs out there who print and archive all (or most) of their email etc. in anticipation of someone someday studying them. Might these rare birds be increasing the chances that they will be studied by historians in the future simply because they will be among the few whose personal records will be preserved in an organized way (just as a woman who kept a diary in 17th Century Pennsylvania has almost certainly been the subject of at least a dissertation, assuming the diary lasted)?


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