Tips on doing history?

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    I posted this on the forum for Western Civ but given that there isn’t a lot of activity and I’m more likely to get responses from the general users on here I’m posting it here too.

    I’m studying history at the moment and given the great emphasis on history on this website I was wondering if there were any tips on doing history like for the research or the work with source material or notetaking for when you are reading books, etc.

    Any book that has helped on your own work would also be appreciated


    I’m sure Professor Jewel will answer your post but it might take a bit more time than usual because of Thanksgiving.

    My answer would be that it in part depends on what type of historical research you’re doing as to what book or books are most helpful. (If you meant a helpful book on historiography – how to do research in history, Professor Jewel or Professor Wood’s recommendation would be best. I took a course on research methods in history ages ago, but I don’t remember the titles of any of the books assigned for the class. I wasn’t impressed with any of them, anyhow; that class was in the ’90s, at the height of bad methodology). But as a general rule when doing historical research, primary sources are always your best bet. These may or may not be contemporaneous books and articles but also things in historical archives and the like.

    That said often the best way to find primary sources is by reading contemporary scholarly books and articles on the subject, and looking at their bibliography and footnotes. The books and articles of a historian you like can be mined for breadcrumbs leading you to other sources, which in turn will often turn up even further sources, and so on.

    Note this is why I also like physical libraries. Not to knock using internet/database search-fu (which I also do), but lets say you turn up several books/articles you want to read for your research, and look up the Dewey number and go to find them in the stacks of a decent university’s research library – right around them will be other books on the same subject, and by just scanning the titles several will often jump out at me.

    If you’re doing research for a course of study at a university, avoid like the plague directly citing “popularizations.” Professional historians dislike them with a passion, even if you do find them useful. Instead cite the things they cite. Depending on how open-minded and tolerant your professor is, you may also need to avoid directly citing Austrian authors, libertarian authors, fellow-travelers in those circles, and revisionist authors who have influenced them. This is unfortunate, because credit should be given where it is due, but you also need to look to your grade. What you can do, however, is cite the sources they themselves cite – after all, it is primary sources that are your best friend in historical research anyhow. (This advice, by the way, is not at all intended as a recommendation to plagarize – one must always properly attribute. However, it is an unfortunate fact that with some professors, you’ll have to winnow out things by certain authors, however much they influence your thinking, and only cite the sources their works lead you to, rather than citing them). With the better professors – who are still possible to find – this isn’t as much of a problem. They might still disagree with you, and might make some snide reference about this or that person you cite, but will still grade you fairly, so you won’t have to be as circumspect.


    Btw, I forgot about this, but here are some good research tips I stole from Gary North, useful methods for analyzing anything. First, “follow the money,” who gets what (I would modify this to the power nexus – who has the power to determine who gets what); second, follow the confession of faith – ideas have consequences (“faith” does not mean simply religious faith, but any belief system). This leads to five questions to ask when examining anything (history, politics, whatever); simple questions but very difficult to assess accurately:

    1) Soverignity – whose in charge here?

    2) Authority – to whom do I report? (Me: Notice 1 & 2 are separate questions! Interesting and revealing)

    3) Law – what are the rules?

    4) Sanctions – what do I get if I obey, what happens to me if I disobey? (Me: dittoes 3 & 4!)

    5) Time – does this outfit have a future?


    This is all good advice. In the age of the Internet, and especially with this particular resource (Liberty Classroom), you should take advantage of other people’s specialized knowledge. Ask for good books on X, so you save yourself the trouble of sifting through good and bad. The Internet likewise makes it easier to track down manuscript collections should you be doing original research.


    This is exactly what I hope this website can become not just for me but for everybody. This is why I joined this site because while I appreciate and have learned much from the courses many times when you have questions about something you wonder who to ask. With time this forum could become an invaluable assest for anybody doing research and wanting some feedback or just ideas. And the big advantage is that the forum leaves a papertrail for newcomers to follow.

    Thanks again for the advice Porphyrogenitus. As always you have been very helpful.

    Any tips on writing and how to present the material so you get the most out of the research and knowledge you have accumulated during the reading phase?


    1) Take good notes during the reading phase. Be especially careful to put author & page number in your notes so you don’t forget where you got it from, not just so you can properly cite it, but so you can refer back to that page directly when you’re writing.

    2) Try to form an idea of what you want to focus on in your paper (since no paper can cover everything), but be prepared to tweek it as you go along, till you get a good thesis.

    3) Presentation – orderly build your case in as systematic a way as possible. I usually write “stream of consciousness,” but cut & paste is your friend.

    4) Presentation II – for academic papers, avoid polemics as much as possible; I know the other side, while saying they don’t do it, likes to put in snide ideological quips, but we can’t get away with that as much. Of course, if you know your audience, a bit can go in as appropriate (I usually can’t resist one or two, but it’s really a vice not a virtue).

    5) That said there is no reason for an academic paper to be dry-as-dust; a lot of academic stuff is written in dull, leaden prose, but it doesn’t have to be this way – lively writing, illustrative examples put in a somewhat humorous (appropriately humorous) way, cleverly memorable phrasing, all that is good.

    6) lay out the facts supporting whatever your thesis is, but also address the strongest counter-arguments you can think of. It’s often the case that an academic paper for a class will ask you to critique another author’s work/conclusions; address their strongest points, give credit where they make a good point even if you don’t like where they’re coming from, read them “sympathetically” (don’t distort their argument), if they address the type of critique you’re making, be sure to present that fairly and then show why you still think they’re wrong. If they didn’t, try to imagine how someone who agrees with that author would address your critique, then rebut that. In doing this, avoid setting up straw men (again, the other side does that all the time, but 1) it’s a bad practice and 2) we can’t get away with it much anyhow). If you disagree with an author, you need to read them more carefully, not less carefully, than the ones you disagree with. Try not to get blinded by emotional outrage; especially if they’re someone whose perspective fits within the prevailing academic consensus. Your critique needs to be calm, logical, precise, meticulous – advancing step by step. Try to find *something* about them you find likable (maybe they have a clever turn of phrase), and note that. If they’re an asshat, *show*, don’t tell: quote their own words and juxtapose to illustrate their asshattery.

    7) No matter how good a writer you are, ask someone to edit your paper before submitting it. An “intelligent non-specialist” – they should edit it stylistically (don’t trust Word!), and comprehension. If they don’t understand something, you probably need to refine that section of the paper. Also, listen to them as much as you can bring yourself to if they say something needs to be cut out. Any writer often has a hard time wanting to part with any part of what they write, but the reader is probably right. (I hate this part because I love my own tangents, and I always know the reason why I think addressing the tangent is important; but remember #1 – you can’t address everything in a paper, anyhow).

    8) Some materiel will probably have to be saved for a future paper, even if you never end up writing it.

    If you follow steps like these you’ll probably end up understanding the materiel better by the time you’re done, and understand your own position better as well.

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