The Historian’s Toolbox

This is a very useful book for students of history, though it’s designed for university undergraduates majoring in history. Even so, we students who have already been through college can find some good information in here. My copy is the first edition, and if I’m not mistaken it’s up to its third edition right now.

The book begins with an excerpt from Kenneth Burke’s The Philosophy of Literary Form on “History as a Discussion Without End:”

“You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers you; you answer her; another comes to your defense; another aligns herself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.” [v]

He starts off by telling, “History is fun, even though the past offers us much tragedy, as well as comedy and farce. History involves the study of the past. History is not really an art, nor a science, but it is a craft. The craft of doing history–as opposed to reading history–involves a further intellectual process of research, writing, and revision. Doing history is hard work and requires tools of the trade. The purpose of this book is to help history students, and even other historians, understand the tools of the intellectual process and craft that his history. The tools in the toolbox (part II) provide a number of techniques common to reading, research, and writing, as well as some current controversies in the historical profession.” [p. xiii] He makes the point that, “The past is not history. The past may be lost without a trace. Or it may be remembered or continually reinvented or imagined as a story. The past may be absent or present as a reasonably true account or as useful fiction.” [p. 4]

Some other useful things we learn include, “Historical research is a process of discovery and construction. The historian investigates what happened in the past by researching the available evidence in order to establish the facts and the chronology of events. This evidence may include written records, archives, manuscripts, maps, and documents, but also unwritten evidence–photographs, paintings, coins, records, tapes, videos, computer hard drives, and so on. The garbage of the past is everywhere. But from the very beginning, the historian must select and distinguish what is important and significant from what is unimportant and ephemeral. History aspires to construct and tell true stories about the discovered past. Of course, truth about the past remains elusive and approximate. We can never be certain that we have understood the past correctly. But historians always seek the truth about the past insofar as that is possible. Truth is that never quite attainable straight line that is never precisely straight. As craftsmen, historians construct their story on the basis of evidence by selecting and arranging the facts (or ideas, values, or artifacts) in a chronological sequence that has a beginning, middle, and end. Where the story begins and ends is a matter of interpretation, as well as discovery. In this process, past facts become present statements of fact, narrated after the fact by the historian. In addition, history seeks to understand and explain past events by interpreting their meaning. The historian seeks to discover order and structure in the chaos and messiness of the past. The historian also constructs order and structure by creating a narrative or an argument, based on verifiable evidence. … In addition to telling a story, they develop a persuasive argument on the basis of the evidence, an argument that they believe is reasonable and accurate. They write about context as well as text. They identify causes that will help explain how or why events happened in the way they did. They seek understanding and empathy with individuals in another time and place.” [pp. 11-12]

Professor Williams introduces the ideas of Metahistory and Antihistory. “Metahistory seeks to find one all-encompassing meaning in history. Metahistorians and system builders believe that history has its own meaning internally. Historians can thus discover meaningful laws and patterns in history over time.” [p. 21] This view had its heyday from the nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. As to antihistory, Professor Williams tells us, “As long as there has been history, there have been those who opposed or denied history.” [p. 29] Antihistory includes making up details and using fiction in the place of fact. “The most notorious example of antihistory is historical denial. Historical denial asserts that a well-known event never really happened or that a well-known person never existed. In accordance with relativism, those who deny history assert that all views of history are equally valid, just a bit different They claim that their denial is just as valid as any other historical account. … People usually deny that past events happened for present political reasons. They ignore the normal rules of science, reason, and logic. They distort, or take out of context, selected facts that suit their opinion or argument. They ignore all evidence that contradicts their claim. They exaggerate claims based on one piece of evidence, not many. They substitute bias for open-mindedness toward the past. They cite discredited sources that agree with their point of view. Historical denial is not historical revisionism, a perfectly acceptable way of rethinking the past. Denial is pseudohistory.” [p. 33] Neoconfederates and other confederate apologists are notable practitioners of antihistory, aka pseudohistory, aka fake history.

The second part of the book considers the historian’s tools. It includes selecting a topic, reading, taking notes, and writing a good paper. There’s a chapter on sources and evidence, and there’s a chapter on giving credit and acknowledgment, including plagiarism and avoiding plagiarism. He also has chapters on narrative, interpretation, and speculation.

This short book is useful for us students to hone our skills and to understand how to do history. I can recommend it to those who wish to be serious students of the war and history.


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