George Peabody Library, a 19th-century focused research library of The Johns Hopkins University
How do professional historians work? How do they find and analyze documents and sources, weave them together to tell a story, and identify and answer important questions about the past?
Before they write a book or curate a museum exhibition, historians first spend copious amounts of time deep in archives and libraries, both public and private. Using a common set of skills, they focus their research on what are called primary sources: the documents, texts, and objects generated by historical figures themselves.
In a unique workshop, Christopher Hamner, an associate professor of American history at George Mason University, demystifies this process by guiding you in how to think about and interpret the past. Using a variety of primary sources from American history, he offers a comprehensive approach to effective research. The sources examined include Abraham Lincoln’s views on slavery; propaganda posters from the Second World War; Dwight Eisenhower’s writings on the eve of the D-Day invasion; sources from social movements including the 19th-century temperance movement and the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century; and the U.S. Constitution.
Hamner demonstrates how the professional tools used to approach these sources are helpful when delving into a more comprehensive look at an historical event or era.
10 a.m.–12:30 p.m. Historical Thinking Skills
Understand and practice using the research skills of:
- Sourcing, the process by which historians identify the influence that the author and audience have on a particular historical document;
- Close reading, the analysis of tone, language, imagery, and symbolism that helps scholars interpret not just what is being said, but how it is expressed;
- Corroboration, the comparison of multiple sources to examine similarities, disagreements, and contrasts; and
- Contextualization, the placement of primary sources against historical events to see how each influences the other.
12:30–1:30 p.m. Lunch (participants provide their own)
1:30–4 p.m. How Historians Think About Cause and Effect
Examine the concepts of:
- Hindsight, the way that knowledge of events’ outcomes can sometimes undermine historical understanding;
- Agency, determining who exercises power, where it comes from, and how it is limited; and
- Contingency, the decision points that help shape events and the “what if?” questions that often accompany them.