Friday, July 16, 2010

How Do Historians Really Work?

At the suggestion of NHD Curriculum Director Ann Claunch, I recently read a fascinating book titled, Ain't Nothing But a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry. Written by historian Scott Reynolds Nelson, it is a compelling narrative of how he tracked down the mythic subject of the well-known work song about John Henry, who was so strong that he beat a steam drill in a contest to dig a railroad tunnel, but then died.

Nelson wanted to find out about the real John Henry: did he exist? and if so, who was he, and why was he memorialized in the song? The book traces Nelson's historical hunt for John Henry, in a story that will keep young readers spellbound. This is how real historians do history, complete with primary and secondary sources, and plenty of dead ends, and it's a great model for History Day projects.

Without giving away the ending, it's useful to reprise one appendix that reviews six steps to being a historian:
  1. Find out what is known already. In other words, review secondary sources.
  2. Check the sources used by the authors of those secondary sources.
  3. Find gaps and disagreements and formulate your own questions. In general, if every interpretation of a historical topic agrees, not enough research has been done. Where do authors differ, and why? 
  4. Look for new evidence. As this book makes clear, you don't have to travel to investigate new historical leads. Be open to other explanations, then explore them.
  5. Expand the search. In an excellent section, Nelson describes trying to find certain reports that were presumed lost. By using a variety of search methods, he eventually found them!
  6. Share what you have found. Other readers might point out avenues of research you've inadvertently missed, or even come up with new interpretations of your findings.
 Ain't Nothing But a Man is geared toward students, and could be an excellent supplement to beginning history students in grades 6-8. But it's worth looking at no matter how experienced a historian you are. Older readers may also want to check out the 2006 book that resulted from Nelson's research, Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend, which has garnered multiple awards.

Not many books unpack the process of doing history, and fewer still are able to do so in the context of real historical research. That Nelson does both, and so engagingly, makes this book well worth reading.

Nelson, Scott Reynolds, with Marc Aronson. Ain't Nothing But a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry. Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2008. 64 pp.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the nice comments on Ain't Nothing But a Man. You'll find a similar approach to historical thinking in If Stones Could Speak, which I wrote based on watching and speaking with a team of archaeologists working at Stonehenge.