International School History - Skills - Sourcework - The usefulness of historical sources

  Very common sources on history examination papers, professional historians are people usually employed by universities to research and write about the past. Historians train for many years (6-10 years), usually completing a doctorate before going on to publish articles and books.

Although historians often teach, school history teachers are usually not historians. In an exam look out for clues of where the historian works or which university has published her books.  (see example below)

Inherently strong sources, it can sometime be difficult for students to find anything negative to say. How is it possible for a school student to criticise the views of a world expert on the subject?

Strengths   Limitations
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 themselves.’ (Butterworth)

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 read.

Also consider the work of Timothy Garton Ash and eyewitness to the Revolutions of 1989. He also happens to be a historian. What does he think are impossible to achieve historically looking back with the advantage of hindsight?



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