Sources

‘History gets thicker as it approaches more recent times: more people, more events and more books written about them. More evidence is preserved, often, one is tempted to say, too much.’

A. J. P. Taylor, English History, 1914-1945 (London, 1975 edn), 729. Significantly, the observation about ‘too much’ evidence did not appear in the original 1965 edition of this book.

Writing the history of the recent past throws up some challenging questions for the historian. There is a  full discussion of some of the methodological issues I encountered in writing the book in Martin Johnes, ‘On Writing Contemporary History’, North American Journal of Welsh Studies, 6, 1 (2011).  You can download the article from here.

That article considers the issues of how sources are selected, how competing explanations are reconciled, the literary experience of writing and interpreting, the influence of the historian’s own position, and finally the historian’s responsibility to the reader and his/her subject.  In doing so, it demonstrates how the historian shapes the history that s/he writes but it also maintains that this is not a reason to discard history or despair about its possibilities. As long as we are reflective and self-aware, critical history can still be written.

Sources are, of course, at the heart of any historian’s work but the central issue for a historian of the recent past is rather different to those of earlier periods.  Rather than having to deal with gaps and holes in the evidential record, the contemporary historian is more likely to be overwhelmed by sources.  It is not just the volume of material that is problematic but its variety too.  In writing Wales since 1939, a survey of 70 years of history, I was faced with a huge mass of evidence to navigate and negotiate.  This essay expands on the article cited above by looking more specifically at the different kinds of sources that contemporary historians can use.

Exisiting academic work

Naturally, historians begin with what their peers have written already, and for a historian writing a survey this alone is often large enough to mean primary sources are not explored.  Although synthesis of existing knowledge is a much undervalued scholarly exercise, it can lead to rather critical comments from those who have dirtied their hands in the archives.  Yet in contemporary history the whole distinction between primary and secondary breaks down.  Past academic studies by both historians and social scientists are now primary sources for the period they were written in.  If it is remembered that historians are not the only ones that write about a period, relying on ‘secondary’ work does not mean old themes have to be simply trotted out again and again.  Thus through some imaginative reading from beyond the discipline of history, Brian Harrison was able to explore issues like noise pollution and the temperature of houses, themes which had an important impact on people’s daily lives but have been hitherto overlooked in histories of post-war Britain.[1]

Archives

Contemporary historians might also shy away from archives because not all government papers from the last thirty years are available, although requests for access can be made, normally with varying degrees of success.  There is no doubt that new avenues of research can open up with the release of papers but some historians have expressed doubt about the extent to which new things can be learnt in an era of leaks, autobiographies and ministerial indiscretion.[2]  Moreover, important parts of the decision-making process, such as phone calls and meetings in corridors, often do not leave a written record at all.[3]  Thus the limitations of official archives can be so strong that historians can sometimes reach the same conclusions with or without access to the state archive.[4]

Even if a contemporary historian does wish to use archival material, s/he still faces daunting decisions of selection and very few historians of the post-war world would claim to have read all the sources that they might.  Yet they rarely explain how they select sources to examine.  Indeed, books and articles about contemporary history often say very little about methodology at all, instead preferring to head straight into their narratives.  Even doctoral students, who do write methodological sections explaining why they have chosen sources, rarely expand into explaining why they have not looked at other sources.

Digitization and Newspapers

Accessibility is a key deciding factor in selecting sources.  This is evident in the use of newspapers, where digitization has become a key deciding factor and not just for the writers of surveys.  It means information can be accessed without leaving home but it also makes finding information so much easier.  The Times established itself as the newspaper of choice for British contemporary historians because it was the first newspaper to be indexed and then digitized.  Its importance in traditional elite culture helped legitimize those historians’ choice but for them using any other newspaper was simply very labour intensive.  Bingham has noted ‘Only those for whom newspapers were absolutely central to their research, such as press historians or media studies scholars, could generally justify such an expenditure of time. Other historians were forced to ignore a potentially rich resource or to make assumptions based on hurried and superficial investigations’.[5]

Other national newspapers are now available and are joining The Times in becoming more quoted.  Moreover, digitization makes comparative studies or tracing topics through time easier. It is bringing content analysis back into fashion as it becomes relatively simple to construct tables outlining the number of times a topic is mentioned or a keyword is used.  This is all to be welcomed but it also leads to questions of how representative the digitized newspapers are and to methodological questions about language and keywords.  Accidental or serendipitous discoveries also become less likely in a world of digitization because researchers go straight to what they were looking for, missing the articles or documents that might be found on the way there.[6]

The press is not the only source being digitized.  Archives are also, for example, making available online copies of some of their most popular or most important documents.  Again, it is very tempting for the surveyor of a period to rely on those, putting him or her at the mercy of the decision making of archivists and those who fund digitization projects.

Moving images

Some moving-image sources are also being put on line, sometimes officially by copyright holders, sometimes unofficially on YouTube.  Yet, television and radio are underemployed by all contemporary historians, especially those who study politics.  Although from the 1960s onwards, it was clearly the most important source of information for the majority of the British population, it is difficult for historians to watch and hear old programmes.  History sections of the BBC website are important beginnings and the online ITN archive is also very useful although not yet widely used.  However, wider programming remains very inaccessible to historians.  That does not mean it cannot be accessed but it requires some knowledge of how to approach television companies, something which companies are not always apparently keen to disseminate for fear of being overwhelmed by researchers.[7]

Oral testimony

The wealth of source material has also led contemporary historians away from oral history.  Some of the relative absence of oral sources in contemporary history is down to traditional concerns about the fallibility of memory. Some of it is probably down to oral history being more time consuming and intrusive for historians better used to the familiarity and anonymity of working away in a library.  But most contemporary historians simply do not need to rely on oral testimony to construct a convincing account of a topic.  Catterill, however, argues that recollections ‘can help to open out the mental universes of key players – their attitudes, their motives, their understanding of significant events in which they had a part. They can provide, not an accurate record, but a narrative of what seemed significant to those involved’.[8]

Perhaps that should be what now seems significant to key players, since their recollections will inevitably be coloured by subsequent events.  Some political historians do use oral testimony to compare with the documentary record or simply to add colour to their accounts.  Beckett even places descriptions of his interviewees and interviews in the main narrative, as another layer of evidence in their self.[9]  Some social historians also use oral testimony for topics where the written record is scant or dominated by one perspective.[10]  Yet, as the work of David Kynaston shows, even on the mundane details of ordinary life, the documentary sources exist to mean that oral testimony is just not as necessary as it is for pre-1945 historians.[11]

Film and fiction

Film and fiction are other sources that allow access to ordinary life and the mental horizons of the recent past, as well as offering quotes that encapsulate and communicate the feel and atmosphere of a topic, something important in simply making history more readable.[12]  Contemporary representations of life, whether fiction or factual, whether from the screen or the page, are more than just as repositories of information about the past.  No man or woman knew his or her whole nation and thus what they saw, heard or read was a significant part of how they imagined and understood the world they lived in.  Representations of that world were not any more accepted by contemporaries than they should be by historians.  They were interacted with and compared to personal experiences.  They are thus more than traces of the past which the historian can use to understand what has been.  They are part of the past, an active agent which helped shape the world they depict, even if not in a literal way.  Some texts are, of course, more significant than others, and fictional representations require more complex interrogation than ‘factual’ sources, but all representations deserve scrutiny and consideration because of how they mattered to their audiences.[13]

Indeed, there is something to be gleamed from even the most ephemeral sources, whether they are a long-forgotten novel or television show or an old jacket or record at the back of a cupboard.  This has allowed Joe Moran to write a brilliant history of the post-war everyday, which features everything from fishfingers to remote controls.[14]  In a world where the clutter around us is an historical artefact, the problem of the contemporary historian overwhelmed by a multitude of potential sources only deepens.

The local press

The idea that the media provided a framework for people’s thoughts also lends credibility to another source that should be very useful for contemporary history but is not widely used, the local press.  In its letter pages in particular can be found opinions on everything from local conditions to international crises and from personal problems to cultural dilemmas.  Of course, there are issues of how representative they are.  One 1960s reporter remembered of the Western Mail’s letters pages that ‘On a bad day the rabid and nutty would turn up as if the page were a drop-in centre for the deranged’.[15]  Moreover, editors confess to using them to raise issues and start debates.  They also tend to show what people were dissatisfied with rather than what they were happy with.  Thus the Merthyr Express was described by one reader in 1995 as ‘ninety per cent doom and gloom, crime and terror’.[16]  But that doom and gloom was widely read.  One 1961 survey suggested that 84 percent of Welsh housewives read newspapers.[17]  They might not have agreed with every complaint and every opinion they read in their local paper but those ideas were part of the framework in which and against which they viewed the world.

Selection

Andy Beckett’s history of Britain in the 1970s notes that it ‘tries to select and scrutinize – for in single, sometimes forgotten events the essence of a time quite often lies – rather than painstakingly list and summarize.’[18]  It is difficult to disagree with such an approach and it certainly makes for more readable books but it does not help with selecting sources to study selected events or indeed help decide how to discover those forgotten events which can be so informative in the first place.  At the very outset of research decisions need to be taken on where to look for evidence.  Our prior knowledge of a topic, which is often based on not just past research but also popular mythology or even our own memories, thus becomes a key decider in the approach that is initially chosen.  If we base our selections of evidence or topics on the arguments that we want to make the problem becomes the extent to which we end up finding evidence because we were looking for it.  Of course, new avenues might open as new research is published or unexpected things are found in the historical record but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the base from where a historian begins plays a very significant role in where his or her research ends up.

For links to finding online sources click here.


[1] Brian Harrison, Seeking a Role: The United Kingdom 1951-70 (Oxford, 2009).

[2] Richard Vinen, Thatcher’s Britain: The Politics and Social Upheaval of the Thatcher Era (London, 2009), 314-5.

[3] Alan Booth and Sean Glynn, ‘The Public Records and recent British economic historiography’, Economic History Review, 32, 3 (1979), 303-15; Rodney Lowe, ‘Plumbing new depths: contemporary historians and the Public Record Office, Twentieth Century British History, 8, 2 (1997), 239-65.

[4] For example see Simon J. Ball, ‘Harold Macmillan and the politics of defence: the market for strategic ideas during the Sandys era revisited’, Twentieth Century British History, 6, 1 (1995), 78-100.

[5] Adrian Bingham,‘The digitization of newspaper archives: opportunities and challenges for historians’, Twentieth Century British History, 21, 2 (2010), 225-31, quote from 226.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Author’s discussions with television researcher/producer.

[8] Peter Catterall, ‘Contemporary British history: a personal view’, Contemporary British History, 16, 1 (2002), 1-10, quote from 7.

[9] Andy Beckett, When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies (London, 2009).

[10]For example, Kate Fisher, Birth Control, Sex and Marriage in Britain 1918-60 (Oxford, 2006).

[11] David Kynaston, Austerity Britain, 1945-51 (London, 2007) & Family Britain, 1951-57 (London: Bloomsbury, 2009).

[12] On the use of fiction see Keith Thomas, History and Literature: The Ernest Hughes Memorial Lecture (Swansea, 1988). James Smith Allen, ‘History and the novel: mentalité in modern popular fiction’, History and Theory,22 (1983), 233-52.

[13] For discussions of this point using fiction about sport as an example see Jeffrey Hill, Sport and the Literary Imagination: Essays in History, Literature, and Sport (Oxford, 2006) and Jeffrey Hill, ‘Sport stripped bare: deconstructing working-class masculinity in This Sporting Life’, Men and Masculinities 7 (2005), 405-423.  On the question of audience reception using a similar example see Martin Johnes, ‘Texts, audiences and postmodernism: the novel as source in sport history’, Journal of Sport History, 34 (2007), 121-133

[14] Joe Moran, Queuing for Beginners: The Story of Daily Life from Breakfast to Bedtime (London, 2007).

[15] Geraint Talfan Davies, At Arm’s Length: Recollections and Reflections on the Arts, Media and a Young Democracy (Bridgend, 2008), 42-3.

[16] Angela Drakakis-Smith, Graham Day, and Howard H. Davis, ‘Portrait of a locality? The local press at work in north-west Wales, 2000-2005’, Contemporary Wales, 21, (2008), 25-46. T. Robin Chapman, Encounters with Wales (Llandysul, 1995), 148.

[17] Rhondda Fach Observer, Leader and Free Press, 21 October 1961.

[18] Beckett, When the Lights Went Out, 6.


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