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18 September 2014
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Talking About History: From the Greeks to Marx

By Dave MacLeod

Weighing the sources

The practice of history begins with evidence and with sources - so much so that availability of sources is often the key determinant of what becomes popular with historians.

'Students of history need to be aware of the scope of historical sources and the methods of historians.'

Some areas and periods (for example 19th-century France or the 20th-century world generally) benefit from a greater volume of documents than others, such as ancient Germany. Whereas historians of early modern and medieval popular culture face a constant battle to find material, or else to reassess extant records creatively, those concerned with modern political history face a veritable forest of official documents - more than any one person could marshal in a lifetime.

Moreover, each month sees new government files being released the world over, while radio, television and the internet have enormously expanded the source base for contemporary history. Therefore, it is vital that students of history are aware of the scope of historical sources, and the methods which historians use to order them.

Historians claim to master no more than a small aspect of history's true scope. In this we are governed by the huge growth in the volume of sources available. Now, in the 21st century, this abundance is even more apparent.

Between 1475 and 1640, 30,000 books at least were published in England alone. From 1641 to 1700, the figure reached 100,000. During the 18th century, a further 350,000 appeared, and, since then, the number has run into many millions.

Published: 2005-01-31

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