History is a story, and you should read it as a story, but it is also a kind of ongoing conversation among scholars and historians about the past . The discussion centers on why and how an event took place and what the consequences of that event may have been. When you read, write or study history you are actually being invited to take part in that ongoing scholarly discussion.

HINT: In reading history, always look for areas of disagreement. Those unsettled areas are the ones your professor is most likely to want to discuss in class. They are the ones where you yourself can most readily make a contribution as a beginning scholar.

Never just read history.  Always read in order to question and respond.  Ask:  Why did this happen?  What if this person had never been born, or what if this event had never happened (or happened differently)?  What if history had taken a different track? 

·What never to do: Never just memorize names, dates, facts and vocabulary, and then “barf” them back undigested onto the exam sheet.  That’s disgusting!

There are two very different kinds of history reading:

A.     A. Primary sources: first-hand sources from the time of the event you are interested in; and

B.      B. Secondary sources: stories about or interpretations of an event written later, based on primary sources. A textbook or history book is a secondary source


A. How to read a primary source:

When you read a primary source you are doing the most important job of the historian. There is no better way to understand events in the past than by examining primary sources--whether journals, newspaper articles, letters, court case records, novels, artworks, music or autobiographies--that people from that period left behind.

Each historian, including you, interprets a document differently. Remember that there is no one right interpretation, but there are definitely wrong interpretations. If you do not do a careful and thorough job, there is always a danger that you could arrive at a wrong interpretation.

First, carefully look at the document itself, and then consider the era from which it comes.


·         Look at the physical nature of your source. This is particularly important and powerful if you are dealing with an original source (i.e., an actual old letter, rather than a later published version of the same letter). What can you learn from the form of the source? (Was it written on fancy paper in elegant handwriting, or on scrap-paper, scribbled in pencil?) What does this tell you?

·         Ask yourself: what was the author's message, argument or purpose?

·         What do you know about the author: Race, sex, class, occupation, religion, age, region or nationality, political beliefs? How does this affect the nature of the document?

·         Who was the original intended audience of the document? Was this source meant for one person's eyes, or for the general public?

·         Does it tell you about the beliefs/actions of the elite, or those of "ordinary" people (who throughout history are always the majority)? Who did the document serve?

·         Does the author see the big picture of an event, or only his or her tiny part of it?

·         What are the limitations of this type of source? Whom does the author ignore and what important things does she choose NOT to talk about?

·         How does this source agree or disagree with other sources or historians?



B.   How to read a secondary source:


First, find the author's theme and thesis:

·         The theme is what the book or article is about; all writing has a theme.

·         The thesis is what the author attempts to prove. Theses are usually found in the introduction and the conclusion. So, these are the parts you read first.

Reading a history book: Never just read each page one by one, from the first page to the end. Instead, start by rapidly reading through the preface, introduction, and conclusion. Then, look over the table of contents, bibliography, and footnotes. Glance over each chapter before reading it more carefully. Generally you will find that details, arguments, examples, dates and names stick with you much more easily when you understand their place in the story that the author is telling. You ought to be able to read and evaluate an ordinary history book in a couple of hours. Give yourself, say, 45 minutes to look over a history book, and then write a page or two of notes describing the main points of the book. However, this won't work with a textbook, which is too big and compressed and will probably have to be read more slowly--but you could do it with each chapter of a textbook.

Critical evaluation: As you read, ask questions! Try to come to some conclusions as to the value of the book and the interpretations it offers.  Don’t waste time trying to dispute the evidence—that generally requires you to be an expert historian—instead, try to see whether or not the evidence actually supports the conclusions the author draws.  

·         Are the author's examples ordinary or are they just rare, strange or unique exceptions?

·         Does she offer enough examples to illustrate the case thoroughly?

·         Does her view agree with views you have read about before, or with your personal experience?

·         Does the author interpret a bit of evidence in one way, but you can see that it might logically be interpreted equally well in another way?

·         Does she acknowledge arguments against her own thesis and convincingly explain why they are inadequate or incorrect?  Or does she simply ignore opposing evidence or arguments? 


As you read, always keep in mind:


·         Large numbers of so-called "historical facts" are actually opinions, generalizations or interpretations that have attained the status of "facts" just because they have become so well established that no one argues about them any more.

·         Historians, like everyone else, select their facts. They pick and choose from an infinite amount of information about everything that ever happened in the past. Their choice of facts is shaped by their interests, their own beliefs, their background, their training, and the questions they ask.


As a beginning scholar, whether or not you like or enjoy reading the book is usually the least important factor in your reading and responses.


 “Critical” reading does not necessarily mean “criticizing,” nit-picking or disagreeing with the author's thesis or evidence. But always be ready to explain why you agree or disagree.


Always ask yourself:

·         What seem to be the author's assumptions and values? Does she seem to subscribe to some religious, political or ideological system such as Christianity, Conservatism or Marxism? (Be aware of where the source is coming from, but don't let that prejudice you against the writer!)

·         How does the work relate to other reading in the course, or to the other books you've read in your life? How does it relate to your own personal beliefs, ideology, faith or experience?

·         If the author is correct, so what? Does she change our view of the past or  understanding of the present?  Does the book pass the “who cares?” test?  If so, why?  If not, why not? 


OW 5/07

For classroom use only!  Adapted from Carlton College History Website.  Thanks are due to Kirk Jeffrey, Molly Ladd-Taylor, Annette Igra, Rachel Seidman, and others and

For educational purposes only.


Owen M. Williamson - Education Bldg 211E - phone: (915) 747 7625 - fax: (915) 747 5655
The University of Texas at El Paso - 500 W. University Ave. - El Paso, TX 79968
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