Trained experts and the most useful and reliable
interpreters of the past.
Historians enjoy the benefit of hindsight which contemporary sources
do not. Contemporaries can be caught up in the emotion of the moment
and ill informed, lacking a historical perspective. ‘The point of
history is to understand the people of the past better than they did
In contrast, historians see the big picture of how events in the
past are connected through chains of cause and consequence. They are
in a realistic position to make judgments about significance. They
can be more scientific, detached and objective, reaching conclusions
about the past.
Historians enjoy access to previously classified documents (see
private sources) which are
declassified after a fixed amount of time (e.g. 30 years in the UK)
or after the collapse of authoritarian regimes (e.g. after the fall
of Communism in 1990s).
Most importantly historians work with the benefit of earlier
historical research or the wider research community.
Historians are human beings and subject to human
weaknesses, prejudices and limitations.
In examination knowing the reputation of an historian as belonging
to particular historiographical school can be a simple way of
scoring marks: that such and such an historian is a revisionist or
proponent of the orthodox view on the subject and that we’d
therefore need to be aware of other schools of thought etc.
Sometimes the book being quoted is a general text with only a
few paragraphs on the subject being investigated. This allows you to
question the historian’s expertise in this particular subject.
Historians usually write books, a fairly restrictive way of
conveying information about the past. Real historians are most at
home in archives and libraries surrounded by books and writing
learned articles for fellow historians. Many historians often lack
the communicative skills of the novelist or television presenter.
Much academic history writing is therefore dull and/or difficult to