Sourcing History for Blogging: Research Without Leaving the House

What inspires me to write an article for my history blog? The answer could be anything. A phrase,  a book, watching a film, a TV programme, a memory or possibly a newspaper article. I work away from home a lot and so need resources that can inform when at home or staying in a hotel. Here I take a look at some of my blog articles and what inspired me to write about that particular topic and the sources I used without leaving the house.

On Sources

I use both primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are original documents contemporaneous to an event that can often be found in archives, such as court records, government documents, registers, eye-witness accounts, journals, letters and photographs. Newspapers can also be considered primary sources, depending on the construction of the report and if it is a current event, as their correspondents documented events as they happened. Although sometimes caution needs to be taken as newspapers can be politically biased and may  look at circumstances prejudicially.

The historian needs to be circumspect with regards to diaries and biographies, as like newspapers, they can be written to promote a certain viewpoint and as part of their analysis they should judge if there was any prior agenda in writing the text; if it was propaganda or a truthful rendition of the past. It should be noted if the historical record is incomplete leaving the historian unable to balance an argument.

Secondary sources analyse the primary sources and bring together a narrative to interpret the historical record. A secondary source may well be a blog, magazine article,  a book or a TV documentary, indeed, anything that has been composed by using information that has come from someone else’s primary work or from other secondary resources.

I use both primary and secondary sources in my blog – although I do prefer to have at least one primary source in each article.

On Blog Posts

I began my return to blogging by writing a post about words. To Find the ‘Write’ Word was written after I had read two newspaper articles on archaic words, the second one inspired me to write a post documenting some of the unfamiliar words I used during my time at university studying history. It’s never a favourite post of mine, the writing of it was too much of a slog for that, but it is a testament to my perseverance as I struggled to finish it.

The Harvey Weinstein scandal had me thinking about an earlier Hollywood scandal and so I spent a week watching documentaries and clips of black and white films on You Tube so that I could write about the Fatty Arbuckle scandal from 1921. I was a avid reader of biographies written about Hollywood stars in my teens, including Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Jean Harlow and Clara Bow. So this was a real passion post where I delved into subjects that excited me without leaving the house for research. Along with You Tube documentaries I also accessed contemporary newspapers from the British Newspapers Archive, a favourite source.

For another post, Witchcraft, Petty Treason and Poisoner? I used another favourite online primary source – The Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online – this is a digitised transcription of the original records.  I was staying in a hotel in an unfamiliar place and the idea to write about three trials in three different centuries evolved over a period of hours. I added an HistorianRuby comment as I wanted to fill in the gaps of the trial transcripts. Having an internet resource was hugely beneficial and facilitated the research and writing of this post.

For my next post I used a book from my history book collection, a transcription of records of executions at Walton Prison, The Register of Death: A History of Executions at Walton Prison, Liverpool, by John Smith. I had originally spotted Smith’s book in Wallasey Central Library and made notes after reading a chapter, but one chapter wasn’t enough and so I ordered a used copy from Amazon, along with the second volume.

Having previously studied criminal poisonings tried at the Old Bailey, London, in the nineteenth century, I was fascinated to learn that the first execution at Walton Prison was of a woman, Elizabeth Berry, convicted of poisoning her daughter. In theory, that sort of record should have been sourced from an archive, the ease in which the post was written due to someone else’s diligence in transcribing primary source documents was not lost on me. Using a source that enables the writer to stay at home is a perfect source for those who are housebound for many different reasons.

I wrote about Typhoid Mary because I kept teasing a colleague that she was a carrier of disease as others frequently developed colds after working with her! I used online sources along with journal articles and newspaper articles. I followed the same method for my post on Spanish Flu; both were written while on down time from work when staying in hotels.

I frequently use online primary sources, the digitisation of documents make my life, and many other people’s lives, a lot easier when researching a topic. Paywalls can be balanced against travel costs and the sheer convenience of being able to research without leaving the house makes me thankful that others have worked to make these resources available to the general public. Just for the record, to date I have used the British Newspaper Archives for a dozen published blog posts, and there are others waiting in the wings; the part-written posts that I fell out of love with before completing. It is a resource that I can recommend.

Online primary sources used for the HistorianRuby blog include:

If you like this post you might like to read its companion article Sourcing History for Blogging: Six Months of History Trips.


3 thoughts on “Sourcing History for Blogging: Research Without Leaving the House

  1. Always good to learn about new resources. It doesn’t seem that I ever lack for topics, but sometimes I don’t have time to get to the college library.

    As always, I really enjoy your well-researched articles.

    Liked by 1 person

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