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Ten commandments of research

Updated Tuesday, 4th September 2007

Historical research is endlessly fascinating, occasionally frustrating and totally absorbing. Here are ten commandments to get you started. You should also be warned that it is often totally addictive!

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Research can cover everything from talking to the oldest inhabitant in the village about VE night to trying to find out what the Cabinet decided about nuclear weapons yesterday.

  1. Be prepared. Wherever you are going and whatever you are researching, it is wise to work out precisely what you want. Be also prepared to find that what you expected is completely out of the question! Historical research is always like trying to do a jigsaw without all the pieces.
  2. Read around the subject. You will miss a lot by not trying to find out the background to any topic you are researching.
  3. Keep accurate records. Nothing is more frustrating in historical research than finding something once and then not being able to find it again later. Work out your own filing system and stick to it. Cards work for many people; if you are using the computer, remember to back up and keep copies.
  4. Use the internet wisely and well. The internet has proved an enormous bonus to historians. Many archives (such as The Times) are now available on the internet and there are many helpful sites. You can get birth, death and marriage certificates (from 1837) from Gov-Certificates.co.uk. The census is available from 1801 to 1901 and is online from 1841 to 1901. But beware – there are pitfalls to using the internet. For example, many sites about the Holocaust are wonderful but there are some which are misleading, others that claim it never happened.
  5. Plan carefully. Planning is essential; contact the archive and get as much information as you can. Find out essential information. When is it open? What is available? Archivists are a really nice lot of people but they need warning and consulting. Check essential information. Do you need ID? How many bits of information can you look at at any one time? Can you make copies and how much will it cost?
  6. Do a taster first. It is often wise not to dive in straight away but just to look at one item or related items and see what is involved. Forewarned is forearmed!
  7. Assess reliability. No source is unbiased. If you are studying the slave trade, for example, what the slave owners felt was important is almost certainly not what the slaves felt was important! Arthur Marwick, the former Professor of History at the Open University, used to distinguish between witting testimony (the information the writer intended to convey) and unwitting testimony (the prejudices and assumptions underlying the source). Check how contemporary the source was and why it was created.
  8. Find out what special skills are needed. The further back in time, the more important it is to realise that you may need special skills. Many medieval records are in Latin. Modern record-keeping often until recently used a very archaic shorthand. Even Victorian phrases have changed in meaning. ”On the town”, for instance, now means having a good time (usually alcoholic); it had a quite different meaning in Victorian times.
  9. Think like a detective. Remember, the harder you try, the luckier you can get. History is often like an orange, the harder you squeeze, the better the result!
  10. Work out a strategy. Supposing, for example, you are trying to find out how your town felt about World War One. You might not be able to read every single newspaper for four years. You might need to take key events or to do a systematic search, say taking different months at random or looking at key events. What are the advantages of your particular method of investigation? Oral history, for example, can make history come alive but it can be biased, inaccurate or suffer from memory loss.

Some suggested sources of information

There are literally millions of sources of information for the historian – and the list grows every day. One of the exciting things is that history is diversifying; it is no longer just kings, queens and battles. Here are just a few suggestions to start you off:

National Archives: The National Archives deal with the main British records and especially for England and Wales.
There are separate National Archives for Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland:
National Archives of Scotland
Public Record Office of Northern Ireland
National Archives of Ireland.

Familia is a very useful site for family and public records, operated by the Museums and Libraries Archives Council.

County Records: These will be held by your local archives and records office, which will be organised by your local County or Municipal Borough Council. These usually also contain ecclesiastical records, often going back to medieval times.

The BBC and the Open University are not responsible for the content of external websites

 

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