What do historians do when there are no sources?

What do historians do when there are no sources?

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Historians rapidly come up against absence sources: the documentary record of the past is by its nature fragmentary, selective, partial and obtuse.

What strategies do historians use when there are absences:

  • in solid consistent record series with diverse bases
  • in diverse bases with inconsistent series
  • in consistent series with serious selectivity or partiality issues
  • in inconsistent and partial series
  • with singular textual evidence
  • with singular evidence which is obviously textual but which cannot be read
  • when there are no documentary records of the past

Historians interpolate meaning from multiple conflicting textual sources in the documentary record of the past. This is the natural behaviour of the historian. Between a newspaper article on Thursday and one of Friday the historian must simulate the occurrences of the intervening day, and then imagine that totality of "Thursday" and how it would impact on Friday's news. This is true even with the most comprehensive, diverse and complete documentary record. Historians produce an imaginary interior built out of multiple sources and perspectives. When an interpretation is no longer solid "A clown invasion made the Jury declare Guilty." this tends to become obvious, as the interpretation becomes tendentious, rests on fewer text points or more obscure interpretations, and also "just doesn't make sense" from the perspective of other historians simulated imaginary. Historians, therefore, tell rhetorical stories to try to make sense of what they imagine based on what they read. The important thing about history is: they try to make the story true to the past as it was, rather than their desires about what the past ought to have been.

This governs the rest of the answer.

Historians stitch together diverse but inconsistent series by knowing how different sources will talk about a common thread or process. Courts talk about things in one way with one set of limits, starvation chronicles talk about something in another way. If we have a common point where we can see how starvation chronicles talk about something when people are being tried for hoarding, we can stitch the rest of the story together knowing the limitations on the diverse sources.

Where a source is consistent but limited, we go to other instances. For example, if the Courts in Scotland rarely encounter women in the middle ages, and the Courts in England rarely encounter women in the middle ages, but in England we have other sources on the history of women; then we use the difference between the Courts' partial reporting on womens' lives and the fuller story in England to hazard an interpretation of the probable limits of Scottish Court sources.

Where a series is partial and inconsistent, we try to produce metaphoric accounts from other societies ("theory"), and then apply the theory with intense and incredible scrutiny of individual sources. By more closely reading the limited series, we push the interpretive capacity to the limit to produce what can be gleaned from the sources. When there is less and worse material to read, we read harder. We also start using non-documentary records of the past, such as archaeological, anthropological, literary, religious records. We start to stop being historians, and become interdisciplinary scholars.

Where only a singular textual source exists we can only comment on that source. We probably should stop considering this as history, but, occasionally we can uncover a context (say through linguistics) and then relate this source to other sources. Singular sources are a problem of finding their appropriate context.

Where textual sources are unreadable (Linear A) we cannot be historians. We must become, perhaps, historical archaeologists, or archaeologists with a historical interest.

Where no documentary record of the past exists history is impossible. Other scholars (anthropologists, archaeologists) can provide information about the past. Similarly, it may be possible to interrogate the past through oral records of the past that are actually a documentary record if you think about it without Western bias. In circumstances without a documentary record, sometimes further work on methodology and theory can uncover that "actually yes, there was a documentary record all along but we were too blind to see it." Also, often, in this case historians may be waiting on information professionals to supply a documentary record. Until the "cabinet" papers open, most political history lacks the substantial basis for its understanding. Post-soviet history of the Soviet Union is a wonderful field, as the archives opened.

Samuel Russell's answer is good. I'll just add the following.

The title of the question is "What do historians do when there are no sources?", the answer to which should be "give up". When there are absolutely no sources, guessing is not a valid option. I'm including archaeology and any other fonts of evidence here in the sum total of potential source material. In this regard, the distinction between historians and archaeologists or anthropologists is artificial. They are all people who hope to understand the past by understanding historical sources… they just specialise in different types of record.

However the OP is more to do with "What do historians do when the sources are insufficient". That's a very different story, and one that Samuel Russell ably addresses. The real skill of being a historian is largely contained in one's ability to understand the limits of evidence and build tenable conclusions without entering into the field of guesswork.

Primary and Secondary Sources in History

The concept of ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ sources is key to studying and writing history. A ‘source’ is anything that provides information, from a manuscript where words tell you things to clothes that have survived centuries and provide details on fashion and chemistry. As you can imagine, you can't write history without sources as you would be making this up (which is good in historical fiction, but rather problematic when it comes to serious history.) Sources are usually divided into two categories, primary and secondary. These definitions would be different for the sciences and the below apply to the humanities. It's worth learning them, they are vital if you're taking exams.

Who Are Federal Historians?

This question is not as easy to answer as it may appear. The PhD historians who work for the federal government as official agency historians in the executive branch or historians for the Congress or the Supreme Court spring first to mind. Although this group makes up the largest number of individuals directly employed by the government with the "GS-170 Historian" job classification, they are certainly not the only "federal historians." Many other federal job categories, including curators, archivists, librarians, and records managers, are filled by people with MAs or PhDs in history who may have taken additional training in museum studies or in library and archival science. In the private sector, there are also historians who contract with some federal agencies to undertake virtually all of the above activities. Some of these independent historians work as individual consultants others work for consulting firms. A final category is composed of those historians working in the federal government in positions that are defined technically as nonhistory positions and classified instead as policy development and evaluation, public affairs, staff in congressional offices, and the like, but which benefit significantly from the incumbent's historical training.

There are many different types of historians, each with a specialty or a specific area of study in which they are experts. These specialties range from a specific time period, country, or region. For example, a historian could specialize in U.S. history with a particular mastery of 1960's pop culture. Another example of a specialization could be South African history with a concentration on apartheid. Historians may also specialize in history type, such as the history of women, or science. However, even though many historians specialize in one topic, it is expected that they have a general base of history knowledge.

Historians study written records of history this is where they get the support and evidence to back up their interpretation of the event or time period in question. It is their job to pore over all of the written documents they can find, and then piece together all of the information they gather to form some kind of historical narrative. They are then able to answer the questions of what happened, who was involved, why, etc.

Over 70% of all historians work in colleges or universities, and much of what these historians do involves teaching courses or serving some role in a history department. The work of historians at colleges and universities also greatly involves conducting research and writing articles and/or books. When it comes to writing, if they are professors, they will most likely be expected to author a book(s) about their specialty.

Those historians who do not work in colleges or universities may work as archivists, helping collect and preserve important historical documents, or may work with government agencies and be involved in helping to preserve buildings. They may also be consultants for the media (TV, radio, film, etc.) with the task of making sure all aspects of the show or film in question are historically accurate.

Non-Historical Writing - Religious and Mythical

The start of the historical period of ancient Iran roughly coincides with the coming of Zarathustra (Zoroaster). The new religion of Zoroastrianism gradually supplanted the existing Mazdian beliefs. The Mazdians had cosmological stories about the history of the world and the universe, including the coming of mankind, but they are stories, not attempts at scientific history. They cover a period that might be designated Iranian pre-history or cosmological history, a period of 12,000 mythological years.

We have access to them in the form of religious documents (e.g., hymns), written down centuries later, beginning with the Sassanid period. By Sassanid Dynasty we mean the final set of Iranian rulers before Iran was converted to Islam.

The subject matter of books like the 4th century A.D. scriptural writing (Yasna, Khorda Avesta, Visperad, Vendidad, and Fragments) in the Avestan language, and later, in Pahlavi, or Middle Persian, was religious. The important 10th century Ferdowsi's The Epic of Shahnameh was mythological. Such non-historical writing includes mythological events and the connection between legendary figures and the divine hierarchy. While this might not help too much with a terrestrial timeline, for the social structure of the ancient Iranians, it is helpful, since there are parallels between the human and cosmic world for instance, the ruling hierarchy among the Mazdian deities is reflected in the king-of-kings overlording lesser kings and satrapies.


Historians research, analyze, interpret, and write about the past by studying historical documents and sources.


Historians typically do the following:

  • Gather historical data from various sources, including archives, books, and artifacts
  • Analyze and interpret historical information to determine its authenticity and significance
  • Trace historical developments in a particular field
  • Engage with the public through educational programs and presentations
  • Archive or preserve materials and artifacts in museums, visitor centers, and historic sites
  • Provide advice or guidance on historical topics and preservation issues
  • Write reports, articles, and books on findings and theories

Historians conduct research and analysis for governments, businesses, individuals, nonprofits, historical associations, and other organizations. They use a variety of sources in their work, including government and institutional records, newspapers, photographs, interviews, films, and unpublished manuscripts, such as personal diaries, letters, and other primary source documents. They also may process, catalog, and archive these documents and artifacts.

Many historians present and interpret history in order to inform or build upon public knowledge of past events. They often trace and build a historical profile of a particular person, area, idea, organization, or event. Once their research is complete, they present their findings through articles, books, reports, exhibits, websites, and educational programs.

In government, some historians conduct research to provide information on specific events or groups. Many write about the history of a particular government agency, activity, or program, such as a military operation or space missions. For example, they may research the people and events related to Operation Desert Storm.

In historical associations, historians may work with archivists, curators, and museum workers to preserve artifacts and explain the historical significance of a wide variety of subjects, such as historic buildings, religious groups, and battlegrounds. Workers with a background in history also may go into one of these occupations.

Many people with a degree in history also become high school teachers or postsecondary teachers.

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The historian’s sources

The oldest source, oral history, is also in some ways the newest. As the emphasis of many historians has turned to social history, especially history “from the bottom up,” they have had to create their own evidence through interviews with those shut out of the documentary record. Students of Victorian England have long depended on the interviews with costermongers and other street people by Henry Mayhew, the author of London Labour and the London Poor, 4 vol. (1851–62) without these we would not know of their attitudes toward marriage and organized religion (casual for both). One of the first great collaborative efforts in oral history was the interviews with former African American slaves conducted in the 1930s by researchers working for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Although anyone who could remember slavery would by then have been well over 70 years old, the subsequently published interviews nevertheless tapped a rich vein of family stories as well as personal memories. An enterprise on a similar scale is being carried out with survivors of the Holocaust now, however, thanks to videotaping, one can see the interviews and not merely read edited transcripts of them.

Getting permission to do an interview, and if possible to tape it, is the first task of the oral historian. Arrangements may have to be made to protect confidentiality elaborate protocols about this have been worked out by anthropologists, which historians may emulate. People remember things that historians have no independent way of discovering however, they also seem to remember things that did not happen or that happened quite differently. And, of course, they often fail to remember things that did happen. Correcting for the fallibility of memory is the critical task, and for this there is no substitute for preparation. An entire workweek spent preparing for a single interview is none too lavish. If the interviewer knows a good deal already, he may be able to jog or correct an otherwise recalcitrant memory or to know what is reliable and what is not. Except for the tape or video recorder, techniques for verifying oral testimony have perhaps progressed little since Thucydides.

Different techniques are required for investigating the history of peoples who adopted writing only recently. These used to be regarded as “people without history,” but historians are now beginning to isolate the historical content of their oral traditions. Oral epic poetry is still being performed today, in Nigeria, Serbia, and elsewhere, and studying it not only has revealed a great deal about classical epics such as the Iliad but also has shown how remarkable feats of memory could be performed by trained singers of tales, preserving the memory of historical events with much less distortion than was once suspected and recovering at least some of the early history of Africa and America.

The historian confronting written documents can also draw on a long history of criticism. Manuals for beginning historians often dwell on the problem of forged documents, but this is seldom a problem, except occasionally for the medieval historian. A spectacular exception was the alleged diary of Adolf Hitler, a forgery that temporarily deceived the distinguished British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper in 1983. A more formidable challenge is simply to read well. This sometimes starts with learning to read at all. Modern advances in deciphering codes (stimulated by World War II) enabled classicists to translate Linear B, yielding evidence about the Mycenaean language used on Crete in the 2nd millennium bce . Computerized technology promises to assist in deciphering other languages not presently understood.

A much more usual problem calls for paleography—the study of ancient or medieval handwriting. Once the handwriting styles of past epochs become familiar, anything written by a professional scribe should be legible, but one can expect the wildest variations of spelling and handwriting in personal documents. Printing stabilizes texts but also leads to a long-term decline in handwriting. The British historian Lewis Namier, (1888–1960), who owed much of his success to being able to read the execrable handwriting of the duke of Newcastle, argued that the two “sciences” the historian must know are psychoanalysis and graphology.

Reading is, of course, far more than making out the letters and words. Establishing the plain sense is only the first step here the pitfalls are unrecognized technical language or terms of art. Also, the words may have changed their meaning since they were written. Furthermore, texts of any length are almost always metaphorical. Irony may be obvious (Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” was not seriously advocating raising Irish babies for the English table), but it may also be so subtle as to escape detection (did Niccolò Machiavelli really intend that his praise for Cesare Borgia be taken seriously?). What is not said is often the most important part of a text. Historians have to establish the genre to which a document belongs in order to begin to attack these hermeneutical questions (a step they sometimes omit, to their peril). Almost all English wills in the early modern period, for example, started with a bequest of the body to the graveyard and the soul to God omission of this might be highly significant but would be noticed only if one knew what to expect from a will. The British historian G.M. Young said that the ideal historian has read so much about the people he is writing about that he knows what they will say next—a counsel of perfection, no doubt, but a goal to aspire to.

Written documents of quite a different kind have come to prominence in social and economic history. These are administrative records of actions that individually mean little but lend themselves to aggregation over long time spans. Social history differs from sociology, it has been said, by having “long time series and bad data.” Records of dowries, baptisms, bread prices, customs receipts, or direct taxes are typical of such sources, and all of them are bad in their own way. Estimating a population by counting baptisms, for example, is hazardous if priests were negligent in keeping their registers or if the custom of baptism immediately after birth gave way to long delays between birth and baptism (giving the baby a good chance to die before the rite could be performed). Tax evasion is as ancient as taxation, and tax records as indexes of economic activity are likely to measure instead the fluctuation of mercantile honesty or effective law enforcement, not to mention the ever-present possibility that the records were poorly compiled or preserved. Cost-of-living figures are particularly difficult to compute even today and were more so in earlier periods. Records of prices paid usually come from institutions and may not be typical of what individuals bought, especially since they usually did not have to buy everything they ate or used. On the other hand, their wage rates cannot simply be multiplied by the number of hours or days in the working year, since they were seldom lucky enough not to be laid off seasonally or during recessions.

Even if historians find the evidence solid, records like this are usually too numerous not to require sampling, and drawing a truly random sample of historical records is much more complex than when doing survey research. Handbooks of statistics do not always reflect this fact. Nobody would think of undertaking a quantitative study nowadays without a computer (although desk calculators are quite adequate for some projects), and this raises a further difficulty insofar as historical records usually vary so much in terminology that they have to be encoded for computer use. Coding conventions are themselves interpretations, and few quantitative historians have never had occasion to curse themselves for premature or inconsistent coding. There is no foolproof remedy against this, but providing a database and a copy of coding conventions has become the recommended practice to enable other historians to evaluate the work.

Handbooks of historical method at the end of the 19th century assured students that if they mastered the interpretation of written documents, they would have done everything required to be a historian. “No documents, no history,” one said. In this century the notion of a document has been enormously expanded so that any artifact surviving from the past can serve as the answer to some historian’s question. Aerial photography, for example, can reveal settlement patterns long since buried. Napoleon’s hair can be examined to see whether he died a natural death or was poisoned analysis of Newton’s hair showed that he was an alchemist. The architecture along Vienna’s Ringstrasse can be construed as revealing the ambitions of the liberal bourgeoisie. The history of sexuality cannot be written without the history of clothing—even the nudes in classical paintings pose in postures influenced by the clothes they are not wearing. Indeed, the ordinary things of all kinds to be found in a folk museum are one of the best sources for the everyday life of people in the past.

Artifacts do not usually tell their own stories. When written documents can be juxtaposed to them, the results are more illuminating than either can be by themselves. Unfortunately, virtually the whole training of historians is devoted to reading written texts, so that skill is hypertrophied, while the ability to interpret material objects is underdeveloped. When historians can, for example, accurately describe how the machines of the early Industrial Revolution really worked, they will have met this challenge—which is, of course, a challenge to know almost everything.

Historians today benefit from much more integrated and comprehensive archival and library systems than existed in previous centuries. The state papers of the United States, for example, were not in usable condition in 1933. Thanks again in part to the efforts of WPA workers, great improvements were made in cataloguing and preservation now a new archive building in suburban Maryland has been built to cope with the tide of documents produced by the U.S. government. The same step has been taken in Britain, and both Britain and France have new national libraries. Less spectacular, but invaluable to many historians, are the local historical societies, county record offices, and the like, which have been established in many countries. These have allowed the collection and preservation of documents that originated in a great variety of places—churches, courts, city and county governments, legal offices, and collections of letters. One of the remarkable developments of the period since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 has been the widespread sale of public and private records to Western collectors. Libraries such as Yale or the Hoover Institution (at Stanford University) are now in many ways better places to study the Soviet period than any in Russia, and if one can fault the failure of the Russian government to pay its librarians and the wild capitalism of the new Russia for dispersing these treasures, at least they will be safely preserved. They have already answered many questions about how the Soviet Union was run.

The proliferation of libraries and archives illustrates what is in some ways the greatest difficulty with regard to modern sources—there are too many of them. Most discussions of historiography focus on how historians tease out the exiguous meanings of documents when they are very scarce. The problem facing the historian of the 19th century and even more of the 20th is how to cope with the vast array sources open to him. Computers and the Internet have vastly enhanced the speed with which printed sources can be searched—titles of all the books in all the major Western libraries are online—but the historian must know a great many descriptors to do a reasonable subject search. Furthermore, the Internet has brought as much misinformation as information, if not more.

In the 16th and 17th centuries it was taken for granted that the historian would work alone and would usually own many of his books. The library of Göttingen, the pride of 18th-century Germany, would be small even for a new university or a modest liberal-arts college today. Great reputations could be made in the 19th century for the discovery of a new archive (such as Ranke’s discovery of the Venetian relazioni). Nothing like this could possibly happen today, yet such is the conservatism of the historical profession that the model is still the single scholar exhausting the archives. The archives for modern history are inexhaustible, and collaboratively written works, already becoming somewhat common, will almost certainly have to become even more so if historians are to meet their traditional goals of comprehensive research.

What do historians do when there are no sources? - History

When you analyze a primary source, you are undertaking the most important job of the historian. There is no better way to understand events in the past than by examining the 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, will approach a source with a different set of experiences and skills, and will therefore interpret the document differently. Remember that there is no one right interpretation. However, if you do not do a careful and thorough job, you might arrive at a wrong interpretation.

In order to analyze a primary source you need information about two things: the document itself, and the era from which it comes. You can base your information about the time period on the readings you do in class and on lectures. On your own you need to think about the document itself. The following questions may be helpful to you as you begin to analyze the sources:

  1. 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 transcribed and 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?
  2. Think about the purpose of the source. What was the author’s message or argument? What was he/she trying to get across? Is the message explicit, or are there implicit messages as well?
  3. How does the author try to get the message across? What methods does he/she use?
  4. What do you know about the author? Race, sex, class, occupation, religion, age, region, political beliefs? Does any of this matter? How?
  5. Who constituted the intended audience? Was this source meant for one person’s eyes, or for the public? How does that affect the source?
  6. What can a careful reading of the text (even if it is an object) tell you? How does the language work? What are the important metaphors or symbols? What can the author’s choice of words tell you? What about the silences — what does the author choose NOT to talk about?

Now you can evaluate the source as historical evidence.

  1. Is it prescriptive — telling you what people thought should happen — or descriptive — telling you what people thought did happen?
  2. Does it describe ideology and/or behavior?
  3. Does it tell you about the beliefs/actions of the elite, or of “ordinary” people? From whose perspective?
  4. What historical questions can you answer using this source? What are the benefits of using this kind of source?
  5. What questions can this source NOT help you answer? What are the limitations of this type of source?
  6. If we have read other historians’ interpretations of this source or sources like this one, how does your analysis fit with theirs? In your opinion, does this source support or challenge their argument?

Remember, you cannot address each and every one of these questions in your presentation or in your paper, and I wouldn’t want you to. You need to be selective.

History of historiography

All human cultures tell stories about the past. Deeds of ancestors, heroes, gods, or animals sacred to particular peoples were chanted and memorized long before there was any writing with which to record them. Their truth was authenticated by the very fact of their continued repetition. History, which may be defined as an account that purports to be true of events and ways of thinking and feeling in some part of the human past, stems from this archetypal human narrative activity.

While sharing a common ancestry with myth, legend, epic poetry, and the novel, history has of course diverged from these forms. Its claim to truth is based in part on the fact that all the persons or events it describes really existed or occurred at some time in the past. Historians can say nothing about these persons or events that cannot be supported, or at least suggested, by some kind of documentary evidence. Such evidence customarily takes the form of something written, such as a letter, a law, an administrative record, or the account of some previous historian. In addition, historians sometimes create their own evidence by interviewing people. In the 20th century the scope of historical evidence was greatly expanded to include, among many other things, aerial photographs, the rings of trees, old coins, clothes, motion pictures, and houses. Modern historians have determined the age of the Shroud of Turin, which purportedly bears the image of Jesus, through carbon-14 dating and have discredited the claim of Anna Anderson to be the grand duchess Anastasia, the daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, through DNA testing

Just as the methods at the disposal of historians have expanded, so have the subjects in they have become interested. Many of the indigenous peoples of Africa, the Americas, and Polynesia, for example, were long dismissed by Europeans as having no precolonial history, because they did not keep written records before the arrival of European explorers. However, sophisticated study of oral traditions, combined with advances in archaeology, has made it possible to discover a good deal about the civilizations and empires that flourished in these regions before European contact.

Historians have also studied new social classes. The earliest histories were mostly stories of disasters—floods, famines, and plagues—or of wars, including the statesmen and generals who figured in them. In the 20th century, however, historians shifted their focus from statesmen and generals to ordinary workers and soldiers. Until relatively recent times, however, most men and virtually all women were excluded from history because they were unable to write. Virtually all that was known about them passed through the filter of the attitudes of literate elites. The challenge of seeing through that filter has been met by historians in various ways. One way is to make use of nontraditional sources—for example, personal documents, such as wills or marriage contracts. Another is to look at the records of localities rather than of central governments.

Through these means even the most oppressed peoples—African-American slaves or medieval heretics, for example—have had at least some of their history restored. Since the 20th century some historians have also become interested in psychological repression—i.e., in attitudes and actions that require psychological insight and even diagnosis to recover and understand. For the first time, the claim of historians to deal with the feelings as well as the thoughts of people in any part of the human past has been made good.

None of this is to say that history writing has assumed a perfect or completed form. It will never do so: examination of its past reveals remarkable changes in historical consciousness rather than steady progress toward the standards of research and writing that represent the best that historians can do today. Nevertheless, 21st-century historians understand the pasts of more people more completely and more accurately than their predecessors did. This article demonstrates the scope of that accomplishment and how it came to be achieved.