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Investigating print, opening up the past

Updated Tuesday 4th September 2007

Books and newspapers keep track of what's going on - perfect if you want to explore the past.

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Library research Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC

It would be extraordinary to find any historian who is not fascinated by the printed word. Historians tend to be obsessive about printed material, whether books, magazines, journals or newspapers – especially when researching their favourite subjects.  

Finding out the background to a modern book should be relatively easy (“modern” means from the 19th century onwards). Most of the information the historian requires is contained in the book itself – author, title, publisher, ISBN number and contents. From there it is relatively simple to search out reviews, biographical detail and general background.

All historians should be nice to their local librarians. Large libraries are not just collections of books but also sources of magazines, newspapers, journals, books of reference, computers and internet, films, videos, CDs, cassettes, sheet music and a lot else besides. If you don’t live near a large library, don’t despair. Interlibrary loan means that all public libraries are connected and they will, for a small fee (usually about a pound), get you nearly any book you want from the recent modern era.

Another avenue well worth exploring is your local university. If you can present a reasonable case, many of them will allow you to use their facilities (tip: this is more likely during vacation periods). Be warned, however, that, if you want to take books off the premises, it is highly probable that they will want you to pay. Current information suggests that this is likely to involve an annual fee in the region of about £100–£200. As with most research, I’d suggest you make a preliminary phone call.

Most libraries in the UK and the rest of the English-speaking world work on the Dewey system. This makes it easy to browse and hopefully find books in your subject area that are of interest. The Dewey system takes all of a minute to master and will repay a hundred times over the years. Each subject has a reference number. The more figures the reference has, the more specific the topic will be. Most books about history start with a Dewey reference number in the 900s.

If you are looking for really obscure works, it is worth remembering that, under the various Copyright Acts, the following libraries must, by law, receive a copy of all books that are published in Britain: the Bodleian Library, Oxford, the University Library, Cambridge, the National Library of Scotland, Trinity College, Dublin, and the National Library of Wales.

Internet retailers have also revolutionised book-buying and research, making it quick and easy to search for and purchase nearly all books. The demise of the small bookshop is to be deplored but larger chains of book retailers usually have a good stock. University bookshops are also a good source of potential buys. A good tip is to get onto the mailing list of publishers that specialise in the kind of book that may interest you. Reviews of history books are often available in newspapers, such as The Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books.  (Most of the broadsheets also contain a number of reviews, especially at the week-end).

If you have a rare book in your hand and are thinking of your bank manager, an expert will probably want to look at the following details: author, title, paper, price, dust jacket, watermark, type of print, size, edition, binding, special features (such as inscription), illustrations, references, known background and condition. Expert advice is available through the rare book departments of Sotheby’s, Christies and other major auction houses. Large museums may also be a source of good advice. So too will be major book dealers, such as Peter Harrington of London. A lot of helpful information can be found in Collecting Modern Books – Catherine Porter, (Miller’s). A more scholarly approach is in: Companion to the History of the Book – Simon Eliot (Blackwell). The Centre for the History of the Book at Edinburgh University is a leading academic resource in this field.

Local museums or specialist advice in your fields may well be helpful if you are looking at much more limited markets. Some books turn out to be a good investment; if you had bought Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway in 1925, when it was first published, you would have paid 7/6d; an original copy sold in 2001 for £12,000.

You are indeed spoilt for choice when it comes to history magazines and journals; there seems to be one for almost every aspect of history. The best advice is to look at the bibliographies of books in your field of interest. One that successfully bridges the gap between the academic and the general reader is the monthly History Today.  Some other leading journals are: Journal of Contemporary History, Journal of Modern History and Past and Present – but the list is almost endless.

Don’t forget newspapers, despite the old adage that today’s newspapers line tomorrow’s dustbins! Most local and regional newspapers keep backnumbers and a growing number have these on microfilm. The Times and a few other papers of record are available on the internet. The British Newspaper Library at Colindale is an outstanding source of newsprint with a wonderful collection. Be warned: when reading old newspapers, you can be very easily distracted by yesterday’s news and gossip!

The invention of the printing press is one date that every historian blesses.        





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