History has always been difficult both to define and to classify. In general, history can be said to be the study of humanity’s past. This definition is broad and unfocused, and for those very reasons is perhaps the best possible definition, as it reflects the range and scope of history as a discipline. This goes hand in hand with the difficulty in classifying history as a discipline. In this book we are classifying history as one of the social sciences, along with business, economics, and psychology. Such classification is valid but is not universal. Many texts, institutions, and scholars consider history to be one of the humanities. This viewpoint approaches history as being methodologically similar to the study of literature or philosophy. Both points of view have merit, and the researcher should keep both in mind when researching historical topics.
As an academic discipline, history is rapidly changing, for a number of reasons. Advances in technology have greatly increased both the discovery and the transmission of historical sources, while methodological paradigms continue to challenge the various interpretations of those sources. At the heart of these changes stand the very meaning of “history” as a field of inquiry. Now more than ever, librarians who deal with history need a firm understanding not only of the sources available to the historian but also of the practice of historical research and of the methodological processes by which historical materials are examined.
Historiography, or “the history of history,” deals with the way in which history has been treated as a field of inquiry in the past. Since there exist a number of good, general introductions to the development of history, we trace only some general, overall patterns in the progress of historical thought from antiquity to the present. For a more comprehensive discussion of the development of historical thought, an excellent introduction to the topic can be found in Alun Munslow’s The Routledge Companion to Historical Studies (Routledge, 2000).
History as it is generally understood in contemporary Western society is a relatively recent discipline. Most ancient civilizations did not write what we would define as history. The Egyptians, Sumerians, Babylonians, and other peoples of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East kept such records as king lists and temple records. These documents, however, did not include the analysis that distinguishes modern historical practice. The Greeks were the first to write history as we know it. In the fifth century b.c.e., Herodotous and Thucydides wrote histories that are still read and studied today. Other Greek and Roman authors wrote historical texts as well, including such figures as Julius Caesar, Livy, and Tacitus.
For the Greek and Latin historians, history was a form of literature rather than a discipline in its own right. The tone of these authors is usually didactic; they tell a story to prove a point or to teach a lesson. The purpose might be political, as it was for Caesar; or moral, as it was for Livy. The purpose of writing history, therefore, was similar to that of writing drama, poetry, or philosophy: to use past events to learn about the human condition.
Medieval historians continued the work of their predecessors. The Catholic Church often became the guardian of historical records throughout the Western world, and members of its clergy, such as Bede and Einhard, were some of the major historians of the Middle Ages. The ancient practice of keeping annals, or yearly lists of important events, sometimes expanded to the writing of true historical chronicles, in which events were not merely listed but were examined within the context of the writer’s social and cultural order. In the Renaissance, the recovery of Greek and Latin texts, both historical and otherwise, influenced historians such as Guiccardini and Machiavelli. Renewed interest in classical antiquity also influenced the development of the auxiliary sciences of history, such as archaeology, epigraphy, and numismatics. Scholars such as Biondo and Francini recorded the material culture of the past as it was brought to light.
It was during the Enlightment and the nineteenth century that history, as we generally use the term today, developed as an academic pursuit in its own right. The humanism of the Renaissance collided with the rising nationalism of Western Europe and the naturalism of the newly developing physical sciences. Historians sought to duplicate within their discipline the sense of causality found in physics, chemistry, and other new fields of inquiry. Besides writing narrative history, scholars began to publish works analyzing specific problems in historical research. Along with this came increasing specialization, as historians focused on the history of specific peoples, geographic areas, disciplines, and groups. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially, individual schools of historical research came into prominence. For example, the annals historians of early- and mid-twentieth century France were heavily influenced by the dialectical materialism of Marx, focusing on the economic and social aspects of history. In the later twentieth century, feminist and gender studies had a great impact on historical research.
The most recent phenomenon to have an impact on historical research is postmodernism. Appearing initially in studies of art and architecture, during the second half of the twentieth century, postmodernism invaded literary theory, the humanities, and the social sciences, and can now be found in nearly every area of academic inquiry. Definitions of the term and its scope differ, and there exist many forms of postmodern thought. In general, however, the postmodern view can be characterized by several traits: a rejection of objectivity, the denial of the existence of eternal truth, and the refutation of a reality external to the individual. For some historians, such as Keith Windschuttle, postmodern theory is completely destroying history as an academic discipline. 1 For other scholars, including Alun Munslow, postmodern theory is a valid methodological tool, and a natural progression from the schools of thought of the past. 2
For students, librarians, and historians in the twenty-first century, a number of developments are important when practicing historical research. First, one must be aware of the ever-increasing interdisciplinary trend that is occurring in all of the social sciences, and the humanities as well. Second, specialization in historical research continues to evolve. Whether by time period; geographical area; ethnic, racial, or social group; or some other focus, historical writing continues its trend toward specialization. Along with this goes the history of various identity groups, such as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people. Third, recent developments in theory and method require the researcher to have a basic understanding of these new trends. Postmodernism, feminist theory, and other intellectual trends will continue to have an enormous impact on historical research and writing. Finally, and perhaps most important of all in the long run, are the new technologies available to the historian. Computers and the Internet provide both basic research tools and venues for the dissemination of research. The World Wide Web makes available huge collections of primary sources that were once accessible only to those who could afford to spend the time and money required to travel to the location of such sources. E-mail and discussion groups allow rapid scholarly communication. Emerging trends in digital publication offer exciting new avenues of multimedia publication that can reach worldwide audiences.