What is a Historian?

Herodotus, one of the first historians. Why is it that so many historians still look like this? Strange. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

When I was in middle school, we had an assignment to research a profession we were interested in pursuing.

In order to find such a profession, we were first asked what we were interested in, and what we were good at.

For me that was easy. Even though I had never had a history class in school, I knew I loved history and was good at it. I loved everything old. I read every book that crossed my path that had to do with the past. There wasn’t a historical museum or monument that didn’t fill me with awe. I understood the past in a way I understood nothing else.

So, when I was directed to a big, multi-volume reference book about all the professions the world had to offer, I looked first for “history.”

I found an entry for “historian.” But the description that followed wasn’t at all what I expected (even though I didn’t know what to expect). There seemed to be two definitions of a historian: one was a person who taught, and the other was a person who investigated family trees (“see: genealogist”).

I knew I didn’t want to teach, because my dad was a teacher (I had to do something different, you see) and because I hated school (I loved learning, mind you, but school in my experience at that time had nothing to do with learning). So that was out.

As for the second part of the entry under “historian”? Blaech. I don’t care about other people’s family trees. That’s not what I liked about history. I was interested in big questions of how people behave and why, not in lists of names and dates.

I looked for further cross-references, and found “archaeologist.”

I fulfilled the assignment using “archaeologist” as my chosen profession, even though I didn’t really understand what this meant, other than that it seemed to involve digging things up from the past. Close enough. As part of the assignment, I had to interview a practitioner in my chosen field, so I found a real, live archaeologist at the local college who was willing to answer a few questions by letter (this was the Dark Ages before email). It turned out, this archaeologist told me, you had to study a lot of science in order to be an archaeologist.

Well, damn. I sucked at science and kind of hated it, too.

I did the assignment, but then I kind of forgot all about being a historian, because it seemed like there wasn’t really a profession that matched anything I actually wanted to do.

As it turns out, there absolutely was (and I can’t account for why it wasn’t stated explicitly in that reference book in my middle school library, except that my experience since then has shown me that remarkably few people have any idea what a historian actually is). I didn’t learn that until halfway through college, though, and I had to first get over the idea that I didn’t want to teach.

What an academic historian really does is half teaching, half research.

The teaching half is pretty obvious, since that’s the part that much of the public actually sees.

The other half was the mystery omitted from that reference book in my middle school library.

So, what does academic historical research actually look like?*

A lot of it looks like hunching over very old books and papers in a series of obscure archives. I told you I love all things that are old!

Archives are places that conserve old things of historical interest—mainly papers. Archives exist all around the world. They usually specialize in conserving unpublished materials (unlike libraries), so they tend to be full of people’s old diaries and letters, but also tax records, legal records, legislative records, and so on. Reading materials in an archive is a lot like snooping, to be honest, but you’re snooping into the lives of people who are long since dead, so you don’t have to feel too guilty.

Yeah, it’s totally awesome.

Most archives are not directly open to the general public (again, unlike libraries), because their materials are unique (since they’re unpublished, they’re usually the only copy in existence) and often delicate (because they’re old). So they can’t let just anyone paw through the collections. Sometimes, if you’re investigating your own personal history, you can get into an archive to search records with a professional archivist, who will help you select the right materials and understand what they have to tell you. (If you’ve seen the BBC TV show, “Who Do You Think You Are?” where celebrities trace their family trees, you’ve seen them helped out by archivists in this way.)

But professional historians get a different kind of access, usually through their affiliation with a university. Historians usually get to order documents more or less at will, and read them on their own (though we are often required, for example, to wear gloves so that the oils in our fingers don’t do damage to old paper, and often we can’t bring in our own pens or sometimes even laptops).

I love the smell of the old paper. I love seeing and touching something very few people have ever seen or touched. I love reading a diary from 200 years ago and seeing the ink blots, the hesitations over a word, the places where the handwriting got hurried. Even the occasional centuries-old squashed bug or water stain.

I once touched the original signature of Catherine the Great when a document was given to me by accident. I admit to being totally thrilled by this experience.

One of my favorite archival experiences so far happened in a tiny local museum in Shuia, Russia. I was studying the Chikhachev family, and I had already read thousands of pages of their letters, diaries, and other documents in the central archive for the region. I went to the tiny town of Shuia because I was told they had some books that were the sole known remains of a library founded by Andrei Ivanovich Chikhachev (he had founded the first public library in the province). The curators at the Shuia museum were incredibly kind and welcoming to me — researchers didn’t come there often, let alone a researcher from half a world away. They showed me the books. I looked at a shelf of bound copies of a periodical in which I knew Andrei often published articles, covering a number of years in which he was most active. I thought, “hm, this could be useful, I’ll be able to make sure I get all his articles from this period.” Then I started paging through, and realized these were the issues of the newspaper that Andrei and his family originally received when they were first published, which they later had bound up and then donated to the library. I saw Andrei’s handwriting in the margins, marking his articles with an excited “mine!” or just “!” and scrawling alongside other people’s articles, “exactly right!” or “I completely agree!”

The excitement of archival work comes in not knowing what you’ll find until you find it, and in reaching across time to share a moment with someone who casually wrote something down one day in, say, 1835, in, say, his study in a tiny village in central Russia, never in a million years imagining that an American historian of the 21st century would later try to mine it for clues to every aspect of the writer’s life.

It’s the closest anybody will ever get to time travel.

So, what historians do, a lot of the time, is sit for many hours, day after day, in cold archive reading rooms (they’re often kept cold on purpose because it’s better for the documents, not for the researchers!). We read other people’s diaries, and letters, we read legal cases and transcripts of legislative sessions and often we spend days or weeks or months reading much less interesting things like inventories and phone books and land registries. From all this material we work to reconstruct how life worked in the past, or how individual people lived.

At its best, this process is absolutely as wonderful and exciting as solving a murder mystery by piecing together a series of strange, quaint clues. At its worst, this process is an exhausting and pointless effort to find a needle in a haystack.

But the archives are just the starting point. Once we’ve done our primary research—reading original documents from the time period we’re studying—we need to start writing, to put together why these old documents matter, and what they have to tell us today.

In order to not repeat work that has been done before us, we read basically everything anyone else has ever said on our subject (this is secondary research), and frame our own new findings in reference to these other works.

In the end, we write up new facts and interpretations about the past, framed in terms of how our new information relates to what was already known.

Like the archival research, secondary research and writing is incredibly exciting and incredibly boring at the same time. Being at the forefront of creating new knowledge is exciting. Being creative, thinking through new problems, is fun for those of us who go in for that sort of thing. On the other hand, the daily slog of trudging through pages and pages of boring stuff, the slog of piecing it all together (it’s much like completing a 2,000,000-piece puzzle), the daily stress of keeping track of everything, and the excruciating slog of checking your work against that of other historians and finishing off every footnote is often boring beyond words.

If you love history, you might be a historian at heart, but that really depends on two things. First, it depends on your doggedness to continue even when the clues are incredibly few and far between and your fingers are freezing and you haven’t eaten in hours because the archive is only open 5 hours a day so you can’t spare the time for a lunch break. Second, it depends on your tolerance for the tedium of taking careful, accurate notes of every finding, of citing every reference, and putting it all together in a way that answers new questions (but does not necessarily add up to a satisfying narrative, as it does in historical fiction and popular history).

If you love history, it’s more likely that you love it passively—that you love to watch the History Channel (or did, before it inexplicably became the Aliens Channel), that you love to read books written by historians, or maybe just historical fiction and popular history. That’s wonderful! You’re the audience for historians, and we need you. If you’re interested in teaching it at the K-12 level or working in a museum, you might be the perfect kind of person to help kids and the general public see why history is awesome. The world needs more people like that.

But there aren’t very many people in the world who will really want to be academic historians. (According to the American Historical Society, there are about 10,000 academic historians in the world.) Like every other job, it is hard work, and a lot of it can be downright unpleasant.

It also requires skills of reading, writing, and interpretation that can only be acquired through many years of training and experience (have you recently tried reading early nineteenth-century handwriting in Russian? And can you follow the archaic usages that aren’t found in most dictionaries? And once you’ve done that, can you figure out what matters in what you’ve read, and synthesize it with the several thousand books written on related subjects, but not quite on this subject? It really does take a lot of training).

Most of all, an academic historian is driven to not just consume history but to actively add to it by wading into untouched primary sources and building an original argument about how and why they matter. There’s a lot of creativity involved in that part, and that can’t be forced.

I love being a historian, because I love the aesthetics of old stuff — relics of another time. I love nosing into people’s private documents. I love reading history books, I don’t care how many. I love traveling to strange places and finding my way around without guidance. I love the feeling of not knowing what I’m doing, and being forced to figure it out on my own. I can’t help coming up with my own (re)interpretations — I did this while reading history books as a child, I can’t help myself. Those are the things that make an academic historian.

We are, in short, the sort of people you probably never want to see a historical film with.


* UPDATE: There are of course other kinds of historical research, but I don’t know much about them, which is why I didn’t talk about them in this post. People do historical research in connection with museums and historical sites, documentary filmmaking, on behalf of various institutions, etc. There are also other ways of working with primary historical documents — archivists and librarians, for example, focus more on how to catalog and maintain access to materials, how to conserve them, and increasingly how to digitize them. For many more stories about how people “do” history in real life, I’m very excited to link to a new web series produced by the American Historical Association: What I Do: Historians Talk about Their Work. You might also be interested in their series of short text interviews with AHA members: Member Spotlight.


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