How to interpret the past and why the study of history matters for the issues we find most important today, from the universities of Nottingham and Birmingham and the British Library. Three weeks from 3 Sep.
This course introduces a range of resources and methods you can use to explore the past. We will use specific examples to discuss how you can make meaningful judgements about particular kinds of history. But we will also explore how such histories influence the way we think today.
Over the next three weeks we will look at important themes and problems for the study of history and the tools and methods that you can use to access the past. Using the collections of the British Library, we’ll highlight different types of sources, including some hidden treasures from our collections.
Week 1: How to ‘read’ history, and why it matters
The first week focuses on language and the study of history. An important theme is the way in which language itself changes, the challenges that poses for studying the past, and the sorts of research questions that may arise from this.
-> how the raw material of history is collected and made accessible: “One of the unique features of this course is that it emerges from collaborations of those who curate the historical record – who collect, select, catalogue, make accessible and exhibit its raw materials – and those who interpret this record, who make it their job to study and write about historical events.”
Simply to repeat what we find in our historical sources is not to write history. History is always about translating. It is about translating sometimes peculiar or alien languages of the past into words that we can understand, that make sense to us. But it is also about pointing out how language changed over time, and how not everything that sounds or looks familiar in history is the same as the present.
The historian faces three challenges in studying the use of concepts:
- the meanings of concepts, and the meaning of language used to describe concepts, changes over time and between groups; sometimes this meaning change can be identified by looking at other words used alongside a concept, eg freedom from vs freedom to
- concepts are contested: different groups or people will try to control an interpretation, and will not necessarily reflect other interpretations in their writings
- a historian will need to look at the wider historical context within which a group was describing a concept in order to decode the meaning of the language they use
What, exactly, is meant by ‘national sovereignty’ in debates over mass migration, border protection, or Brexit? Who is the nation, who does the country belong to? Is the nation defined by a shared sense of the past, by shared values and lifestyles rooted in the past? Or is it simply a community of citizens, irrespective of culture, religion, ethnicity, who live in one country, obey its laws and pay their taxes? The distinction between ethnic and civic nationalism has a long history – it still shapes political debates today.
-> What are the important political words or concepts for your research theme? Are they ‘contested’, ie do different actors use them in different ways? How might reflecting on such differences shape the way you pose your research questions?
Corpus linguistics and histories of the everyday
- concordances: find collocations by sorting on the first word to the right of your search term (try WebCorp Live; can restrict to eg broadsheets)
- CLiC: provides access to over 130 books; see activity book and blog
- not forgetting AntConc and WordSmith Tools; see also All About Corpora
- a form of found poetry…
- sources and evidence: primary or secondary? who, what, where, why?
- ask critical questions, self-reflect to extract yourself from your own social context, consider absences and silences
- see also 5 tips for historical research
- from the same team: Propaganda and ideology in everyday life (on watchlist), led by Maiken Umbach (@maikenumbach | Academia.edu | ResearchGate), who has interests in the historical roots of modern identity politics and the role of material culture (buildings, urban design, objects) in shaping national and local identity, as well as ways of seeing and perceiving landscapes, the way that historically created landscapes shape our ideas of what is ‘natural’ and ‘beautiful’)
Week 2: History as images and artefacts
Libraries and archives, maps:
- Explore the British Library
- digital scholarship & blog | British Newspaper Archive | EThOS | British Library Sounds | Discovering Literature | datasets for content mining
- Discovery (National Archives) | Archives Hub (JISC) | Endangered Archives Programme
- Picturing places, inc (Dis)trusting maps
- Big UK Domain Data for Arts and Humanities: sponsored short research projects using part of the archive, eg how does a single website, or group of websites, change over time; and exploring the emergence and use of recent words and phrases
- search the UK Web Archive | Special Collections made by curators and researchers, eg the Easter Rising centenary, several on Brexit
- SHINE: tool to analyse trends in language use for the period 1996- 2011
- not forgetting the Wayback Machine
Week 3: Thinking outside the box
Our place in the world: whose history? Histories do not belong just to particular communities and nation states; here, we explore some that cut across traditional borders and boundaries.
Colonial legacies as tourism: the example of Asmara
What does it mean for formerly colonised countries to market the physical legacies of foreign imperial rule as ‘heritage’ sites for tourists? In 2017 the city of Asmara, the capital of Eritrea in North Africa and home to about 800,000 people, was declared a UNESCO world heritage site.
UNESCO justified their decision to honour this ‘Modernist African City’ in these words, raising interesting questions. The text acknowledges the Italian influence on the architecture, but makes no mention of the fact that the colonisers were Fascists. Nor does it raise any concerns about demarcating something as a key heritage site that was imposed, by force, on an indigenous population. And which was built not for their use, but for the use of Italians. Any yet, UNESCO in many ways just confirmed a practice that had already been developed by modern Eritreans themselves, who have for many decades been promoting Asmara as a key attraction for – mostly European – visitors.
The desire for ‘sightseeing’ is a key factor in tourism. What counts as a ‘sight’ is almost always a product of history. As tourists, we all become consumers of history, but we rarely reflect on the politics of this consumption.
-> What parts of history do you enjoy ‘visiting’? And should those who curate and advertise such tourist sites make visitors aware of the particular histories that produced them in the first place? Or is it legitimate to give these remnants of the past a new meaning in the present? Can we indulge our appetite for a generic sense of nostalgia for ‘the old’ without getting caught up in the actual power relations that produced this ‘old world’ in the first place?
Formulating effective research questions
Questions help manage a research project by providing a clear focus, and by giving objectives for the research. A good research question should encourage an original contribution to the field of study, by posing a problem that can be resolved through research.
Three stages in devising a research question:
- Reading what has previously been published on a subject. This will show the different questions that other researchers have asked, and the concepts and methods that they have used to study the subject. Think about any gaps in what you have read. What questions haven’t been asked, or are there different concepts that could be used to think about a particular issue?
- Assess what resources you have to resolve problems. How much time do you have for the research? What resources do you have access to? Thinking about these issues will help you decide how broad or narrow your questions should be.
- The last stage is to formulate your question or questions. Your questions should be closely related, they should give your research focus, encourage you to explore a problem in an original way, and provide achievable objectives.
A bit of a hotchpotch, this one! But some useful materials on resources and a reminder of methods for my far too broad research project, in particular corpus linguistics and the UK Web Archive.