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Review: Researching and Writing History in the Digital Age

So how should we think about history? The great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche identified three kinds of history, and his analysis strikes me as still relevant today:

  • Popular histories that consist of tales of “great men” and landmark events that offer simplistic lessons to the present and which is little more than hero worship.
  • Antiquarian history, a misguided attempt to recount the past “as it really was,” which makes no effort to understand why history might be significant, relevant or meaningful.
  • Critical history, which interrogates, interprets and judges the past in order to free us from myths, misconceptions, delusions and false assumptions and to lay bare the historical processes that are reshaping our lives.

What prompts these reflections about history is Zachary M. Schrag’s forthcoming Princeton Guide to Historical Research. The book certainly offers valuable insights into how to undertake archival, library and digital research and extract insights from primary sources, whether textual, numerical, audiovisual or derived from interviews and oral histories. His overarching advice about source interpretation: treat every source as problematic—recognize that every source, even seemingly objective statistical sources, maps or photographs, are constructs that are subject to bias, omissions and error.

This volume also offers valuable up-to-date suggestions about note taking, including the use of spreadsheets, relational databases, note-taking apps, image catalogs and mapping software.

But this volume’s signal contributions lie elsewhere. Readers will benefit greatly from its author’s discussion of historical ethics and his practical advice about how to define and narrow a research topic, formulate meaningful historical questions, interpret sources, take notes and present one’s findings in a compelling manner, whether in a book, a scholarly or popular article, or on social media. Even experienced historians will learn from his discussion of publishing in today’s overcrowded scholarly marketplace.

Anything but a dry compendium of thou shalls and thou shan’ts, Schrag’s guide is written in an engaging style and is interspersed with striking examples drawn from recent historical scholarship.

Read entire article at Inside Higher Ed