HOW DO HISTORIANS KNOW ABOUT THE PAST?
There are many different ways of exploring and thinking about the past, and many different ways to use that knowledge.
Professional historians—people with some advanced training in the discipline of history—bring a particular and often-misunderstood set of skills to the task of learning about the past. They gather and weigh different kinds of evidence, including primary sources (documents or recollections from the time period being studied), material artifacts, and previous scholarship (secondary sources). Using these sources, they work toward careful, often provisional interpretations of what was happening and why at a given time.
Above all, historians are trying to understand how and why things change over time. This isn’t a matter of simply pinpointing causes and outcomes, but of considering different contexts and time scales for interpreting the available facts.
For example, the history of conflict in the Middle East is often seen as the result of religious clashes going back centuries or millennia. But it can also be interpreted in light of the history of European intervention and colonization in the region, as well as the shorter timeline of other nations’ reliance on Middle Eastern oil.
Historians weigh these kinds of time frames and intersecting processes to arrive at accounts of the past that go beyond simple cause and effect. Good historical thinking seldom provides easy answers or lessons. But it can help to clarify what’s at stake, what has shaped present-day realities, and who has been involved in (or excluded from) particular struggles and changes.
Public historians put these skills to work in many different settings, from museums and government agencies to projects that help communities document their own histories. (Click here to see some of the kinds of work public historians do.)
Visit the History Relevance Campaign for another statement about the importance and use of historical thinking. For an in-depth podcast series featuring interviews with historians about how they work, listen to Doing History from the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture, in collaboration with Ben Franklin’s World: A Podcast about Early American History.