Tools and techniques for historical research

Jim Secord

If you are just starting out in HPS, this will be the first time for many years – perhaps ever – that you have done substantial library or museum based research. The number of general studies may seem overwhelming, yet digging out specific material relevant to your topic may seem like finding needles in a haystack. Before turning to the specific entries that make up this guide, there are a few general points that apply more widely.

Planning your research

Because good research and good writing go hand in hand, probably the single most important key to successful research is having a good topic. For that, all you need at the beginning are two things: (a) a problem that you are genuinely interested in and (b) a specific issue, controversy, technique, instrument, person, etc. that is likely to offer a fruitful way forward for exploring your problem. In the early stages, it’s often a good idea to be general about (a) and very specific about (b). So you might be interested in why people decide to become doctors, and decide to look at the early career of a single practitioner from the early nineteenth century, when the evidence for this kind of question happens to be unusually good. You can get lots of advice from people in the Department about places to look for topics, especially if you combine this with reading in areas of potential interest. Remember that you’re more likely to get good advice if you’re able to mesh your interests with something that a potential supervisor knows about. HPS is such a broad field that it’s impossible for any department to cover all aspects of it with an equal degree of expertise. It can be reassuring to know that your topic will evolve as your research develops, although it is vital that you establish some basic parameters relatively quickly. Otherwise you will end up doing the research for two, three or even four research papers or dissertations, when all you need is the material for one.

Before beginning detailed work, it’s obviously a good idea to read some of the secondary literature surrounding your subject. The more general books are listed on the reading lists for the Part II lecture courses, and some of the specialist literature is listed in these research guides. This doesn’t need to involve an exhaustive search, at least not at this stage, but you do need to master the fundamentals of what’s been done if you’re going to be in a position to judge the relevance of anything you find. If there are lectures being offered in your topic, make sure to attend them; and if they are offered later in the year, try to see if you can obtain a preliminary bibliography from the lecturer.

After that, it’s usually a good idea to immerse yourself in your main primary sources as soon as possible. If you are studying a museum object, this is the time to look at it closely; if you’re writing about a debate, get together the main papers relevant to it and give them a close read; if you’re writing about a specific experiment, look at the published papers, the laboratory notebook, and the relevant letters. Don’t spend hours in the early stages of research ferreting out hard-to-find details, unless you’re absolutely positive that they are of central importance to the viability of your topic. Start to get a feel for the material you have, and the questions that might be explored further. Make an outline of the main topics that you hope to cover, organized along what you see as the most interesting themes (and remember, ‘background’ is not usually an interesting theme on its own).

At this stage, research can go in many different directions. At some point, you’ll want to read more about the techniques other historians have used for exploring similar questions. Most fields have an established repertoire of ways of approaching problems, and you need to know what these are, especially if you decide to reject them. One of the advantages of an interdisciplinary field like HPS is that you are exposed to different and often conflicting ways of tackling similar questions. Remember that this is true within history itself, and you need to be aware of alternatives. This may well involve looking further afield, at classic books or articles that are not specifically on ‘your’ subject. For example, it may be that you could find some helpful ideas for a study of modern scientific portraiture in a book on the eighteenth century. The best books dealing with educational maps may not be on the astronomical ones you are studying, but on ones used for teaching classical geography. See where the inspiration for works you admire comes from, and have a look at the sources they have used. This will help you develop the kind of focussed questions that make for a successful piece of work.

As you develop an outline and begin to think through your topic in more detail, you’ll be in good position to plan possible lines of research. Don’t try to find out everything about your topic: pick those aspects that are likely to prove most fruitful for the direction your essay seems to be heading. For example, it may be worth spending a long time searching for biographical details about a person if their career and life are central to your analysis; but in many other cases, such issues may not be very important. If your interest is in the reception of a work, it is likely to be more fruitful to learn a lot about a few commentaries or reviews (where they appeared, who wrote them, and so forth) than to gather in randomly all the comments you can find.

Follow up hints in other people’s footnotes. Works that are otherwise dull or outdated in approach are sometimes based on very solid research. One secondary reference to a crucial letter or newspaper article can save you hours of mindless trawling, and lead you straight to the information you need. Moreover, good historians often signal questions or sources that they think would be worth investigating further.

Remember that the best history almost always depends on developing new approaches and interpretations, not on knowing about a secret archive no one has used before. If you give your work time to develop, and combine research with writing, you will discover new sources, and (better still) a fresh importance for material that has supposedly been known for a long time. As you become familiar with your topic, you are likely to find that evidence you dug out at the beginning of your project is much more significant than you thought it was. In historical research, the most important evidence often isn’t sitting there on the surface – it’s something you need to dig out through close reading and an understanding of the situation in which the document you are studying was written, or in which the object was produced. This is especially true of instruments, paintings and other non-textual sources.

Some standard reference works

Your research should become more focussed as time goes on. Don’t just gather randomly: you should always have at least some idea of why you are looking for something, and what you might hope to find. Make guesses, follow up hunches, see if an idea you have has the possibility to work out. At the beginning, it can be valuable to learn the full range of what is available, but eventually you should be following up specific issues, a bit like a detective tracing the clues to a mystery. It is at this stage of research, which is often best done in conjunction with writing up sections of your project, that knowing where to find answers to specific questions is most useful. There is nothing more disheartening than spending a week to find a crucial fact, only to discover that it’s been sitting on the shelf next to you all term. The Whipple has a wide variety of guides, biographical dictionaries and bibliographies, so spend a few minutes early on looking at the reference shelves.

Every major country has a national biographical dictionary (the new version of the British one is the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, available 2004 online). For better-known scientists, a good place to start is Charles C. Gillispie (ed.) Dictionary of Scientific Biography (1970–1980). There are more specialized dictionaries for every scientific field, from entomology to astronomy. The University Library has a huge selection of biographical sources; ask your supervisor about the best ones for your purpose.

Preliminary searching for book titles and other bibliographical information is now often best done online, and every historian should know how to use the British Library’s online search facility; COPAC (the UK national library database); and WorldCat (an international database). All of these are accessible through the HPS Whipple Library website (under ‘other catalogues’). At the time of writing, the University Library is remains one of the few libraries of its size to have many of its records not available online, so remember that you have to check the green guard-book catalogues (and the supplementary catalogues) for most items published before 1977. It is hoped that this situation will be rectified soon. There are also numerous bibliographies for individual sciences and subjects, together with catalogues of relevant manuscripts. Most of these are listed elsewhere in this guide.

As questions arise, you will want to be able to access books and articles by other historians that touch upon your subject. There are many sources for this listed elsewhere in this guide, but you should definitely know about the Isis Current Bibliography and The Wellcome Bibliography for the History of Medicine. Both are available online, the former through the RLG History of Science, Technology and Medicine database, the latter through the website of the Wellcome Library.

Libraries and museums

Finally, a word in praise of libraries and museums. As the comments above make clear, the internet is invaluable for searching for specific pieces of information. If you need a bibliographical reference or a general reading list from a course at another university, it is an excellent place to begin. If you are looking for the source of an unidentified quotation, typing it into Google (or an appropriate database held by the University Library) will often turn up the source in seconds. Many academic journals are now online, as are the texts of many books, though not always in a paginated or citable form.

For almost all historical topics, however, libraries filled with printed books and journals will remain the principal tools for research, just as museums will continue to be essential to any work dealing with the material culture of past science. The reason for this is simple: what is on the internet is the result of decisions by people in the past decade, while libraries and museums are the product of a continuous history of collecting over several thousand years. Cambridge has some of the best collections for the history of science anywhere. Despite what is often said, this is not because of the famous manuscripts or showpiece books (these are mostly available in other ways), but because of the depth and range of its collections across the whole field. The Whipple Library is small and friendly, and has an unparalleled selection of secondary works selected over many years – don’t just go for specific titles you’ve found in the catalogue, try browsing around, and ask the librarians for help if you can’t see what you are looking for. Explore the Whipple Museum and talk to the curator and the staff. There are rich troves of material in these departmental collections, on topics ranging from phrenology and microscopy to the early development of pocket calculators. Become familiar with what the University Library has to offer: it is large and sometimes idiosyncratic, but worth getting to know well if you are at all serious about research. It is a fantastic instrument for studying the human past – the historian’s equivalent of CERN or the Hubble Telescope. And all you need to get in is a student ID.

Further reading

Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. William, The Craft of Research, 2nd ed. (University of Chicago Press, 2003).


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