Notes from the book entitled "Reading Like a Historian"
[Put in full citation to the book. Page numbers of quotes are in parentheses.]

Historical detectives in search of truth. (20)

Ever-present tendency to rewrite the past to suit the needs of the present. (20)

An alternative to the vicious cycle of teaching students facts that will soon evaporate into thin air (ix)

Historians have developed powerful ways of reading that allow them to see patterns, make sense of contradictions, and formulate reasonable interpretations when others get lost in the forest of detail and throw up their hands in frustration. (ix)


Students approach a document by starting at the beginning and reading to the end.

Historians glance at the first couple of words but then go immediately to the bottom of the document to check out the source. (x)

Some of the questions they ask:

Who wrote the source?

When was it written?

Where was it written?

Is it a diary entry, memo obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, a leaked email? (x)

Is the author in a position to know first-hand, or is the account based on hearsay? (x)

Can the source be believed? Is the author trustworthy. What will he stand to gain or lose?
Soviet Ambassador to U.S./Robert Kennedy (127)

What are the motives/perspective of the authors?

For what purpose did the author write the source.

So even before reading the document, historians have already formed a list of questions that create a mental framework to hang the details that follow. (x)

More important, sourcing transforms the act of reading from passive reception to an engaged and passionate interrogation. (x)

For historians, the act of reading is not about gathering lifeless information to repeat on a test, but engaging a human source in spirited conversation. (x)

Chapter on Lincoln's purported racism.

Difficulty of uncovering a person's sincere beliefs. How to get inside a person's mind. People also change their mind over time. Is a person all or nothing, a racist or an egalitarian. Can we discern when a man is absolute in his views and when those views may be mixed, tentative, or uncertain?

The term "racism" did not even exist in Lincoln's time. Is its use anachronistic today? Are we imposing modern ideas on past situations in an ahistorical way? While today's concerns may prompt historical investigation, they should not swamp or distort the realities of the past. (33)

Even with all the source material about Lincoln: his own writings, reports by his law partner Herndon, etc., Lincoln is still a mystery to many researchers. (33)


Events must be located in place and time to be properly understood. (x)

What else was happening at the time this was written? List 3 events or issues of the day, and explain why they might be important to understanding this source. (77)

Contextualizing in history is about working to understand historical phenomena—speeches, people, and events—as they existed in their original worlds in order to understand them on their own terms rather than through a modern lens. (32)

Historical sources must be seen as human constructions that existed in a particular social world not as free-floating evidence that speaks for itself. (32)

How should we judge the past and its actors? By our contemporary standards or by the standards of their day? History demands that we know the difference between the two. (33)

Learning that statements that sound offensive to our ears could have been judged progressively in another time opens up an important lesson for our students. (33)

Use modeling and guided practice to teach students how to contextualize historical sources. (39)
Model how a historian would read and approach the document.
First, read aloud the source information and head note, pausing to generate questions and comments.
Then read the contents of the document alound, again pausing to parse a phrase, question a term, or wonder aloud.
The point of this modeling is to "think aloud": make visible for the students the active questioning and thinking that historians do as they read. (39)
Also include questions you do not have the answer to: these may be used to show students that closely reading a historical document means specifying your ignorance and identifying what you need to know to understand it. (39)

Define historical context as "imagining the setting."(39)

Context Questions (48)

1. When and where was this source written or produced?
2. What else was happening at the time this was written? The burning issues of the day.
3. Why was it produced?
4. What was different back then? What was the same?
5. What would it look like through the eyes of someone who lived back then?


How to figure out what are the real facts?
Consider what we know, what we will never be able to know, and what is still up for grabs. (20)
It is in this space—between the well-established and the unknowable—that historians toil. (20)

Corroboration, a practice at the core of historical reasoning, is the act of comparing different accounts in order to piece together an accurate picture of what happened. Rather than simply accepting one version of a story over another, historians work to discover points of overlap and departure. What, they ask, is common to the various accounts? When do they disagree? Where do they diverge? What might explain these discrepancies? How might the accounts be reconciled?

[How does all this compare to a courtroom in which the jury must decide a case (in which accounts may well differ) "beyond a reasonable doubt."

In the Pocahontas story, John Smith himself tells it differently (so does Rosa Parks). (2)
Perhaps different account for different purposes in John Smith's case. (2)
So even one source can be hard to pin down. Let alone a number of sources.
Pocahontas. We don't have the story from her.
Other accounts are filtered through the authors' cultural and personal prisms. (3)
So, are primary sources always really primary? (5)

Lexington: when multiple sources agree, particularly when they come from opposing sides, we can take greater stock in their accuracy. (19)


The ability to maintain concentration with a difficult text is inversely proportional to its length. Primary sources are the place to teach students to slow down and read closely, to think deeply about word choice and subtext. (xii)

Good section on slowing down student reading and paying attention to Lincoln's careful words choices. (38)

Choice of stories to tell:

History is full of stories.
These stories require making innumerable choices: whose story will we tell, what events in the story will we focus on, whose story will we ignore. (84) [Rosa Parks vs. Jo Ann Robinson, 109)

How often do we ask students to consider the multiple stories embedded in a particular historical event? No single story can capture all that is true about a historic event, person, or era. Human experience is too varied and complex. People experience events differently and motivations can be hidden and multiple. (89)

T. Mills Kelly. Teaching History in the Digital Age. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013.

Notes are from pp. 22-23. All of the following material is a direct quote.

Almost every historian has his or her own personal list of the characteristics of historical thinking, but abilities that come up again and again are:

1. The ability to tell the difference between a primary and a secondary source.

2. The ability to "source the source"; that is, figure out who created the source, when it was created, and so on.

3. The ability to obtain information about the authority of the source and to assess that authority in light of other evidence.

4. The ability to set sources in their proper chronological order and to understand why that ordering is important.

5. The ability to construct an original argument based upon evidence from various sources.

6. The ability to recognize the strangeness of the past without being put off by that strangeness.

7. The ability to make comparative judgments about evidence.

8. The ability to recognize what one does not or cannot know from the evidence at hand.

9. The ability to understand that events are understood differently by different people.

10. The ability to triangulate between and among sources.

11. The ability to ask probing questions--not just what happened, by why did it happen this way and why didn't it happen that way?

12. The ability to recognize the role of causality.

13. The ability to critique evidence both on its own terms and in terms of its value to a larger analytical project.

14. The ability to recognize lines of argument in historical thought.

15. The ability to present the past in clear ways, whether in writing or in other media, saying what can be said and not say what cannot.

In contrast to this rather long list, students typically have a much more basic list of what they think historical thinking means. Their thinking about historical thinking is often framed as a set of questions, which the answers will provide them with greater certainty about the past:

1. What happened?

2. When did it happen?

3. Why did it happen?

4. Who was responsible?

5. And a corollary question: Will that be on the exam?