What Are the Tools Used by a Historian?


The past is often murky, so historians use a number of tools to help them decode the world of yesterday. Historians conduct interviews for first-hand impressions of past events. More direct commentary is available from primary sources, like artifacts and photographs. Historians share their findings in scholarly journals, which allow them to build on each discovery. Books let historians share their extended research and become familiar with areas outside their expertise.

Primary Sources

  • Primary sources are original documents or artifacts that help shed light on an era. Examples of primary sources include diaries, pamphlets, eyewitness accounts, photographs, fabrics and manuscripts. Historians use primary sources whenever possible to try to create as accurate a picture of the past as possible. Primary sources may reveal aspects of events previously overlooked or suggest new interpretations of data. For example, a diary from the Jacobite Rebellion might provide new insight into how the public perceived the warring parties.

Scholarly Journals

  • Academics publish their research in scholarly journals, where their peers can read and analyze their findings. Reputable scholarly journals used by historians have a review process, where a board of editors approve research before it's included in the journal. This helps guard against the inclusion of inaccurate or inappropriate research. There are history-themed scholarly journals where historians can read the work of others and submit their own papers. Examples include the "Journal of American History," "Journal of World History" and "American Ethic History." Journals give historians a valuable opportunity to keep up on the work of their peers and exchange discoveries.

Personal Interviews

  • Historians use old interviews as primary sources, but they also create new interviews of their own. New interviews are valuable tools for gaining insight into controversial or ill-documented events. People selected for interview may include political figures, war survivors or elderly community members with unique memories. Historians record and transcribe these interviews and use them in their research. Often, historians donate their interviews to a community or university library. This ensures the interview is preserved for future generations and allows other historians access to their work. Scholarly interviews are also refereed to as "oral histories."

Books Are Key

  • Books are a key research tool for historians because they distill large amounts of information into manageable portions. A good historian may be able to condense thousands of primary sources into a single, readable volume. History volumes are not the only books that help historians. Books from specialists in other fields, like sociology and economics, help historians grasp concepts from areas outside their field. This is important because accurate historical analysis includes insight from a wide range of subjects, including ones that historians might not necessarily be experts on. For example, a good book on ecology would help a historian understand how agricultural pollution contributed to the historical decline of a civilization.


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