Historians construct their narratives from documents and from interrogating documents.  At the Open University we have always focused on developing this skill with our students and we suggest a brief set of guidelines for approaching any document (or other trace of the past – a photograph, a building, etc).  This may be of use to you in using this material with your own students:

  • First, what kind of document is it?
  • Second, what is the context of the document?  What were the events that surrounded it?  And for what reason was it created?
  • Third, what are the obvious things that you can learn from the document – put simply, what does the author/photographer want the reader/viewer to know as a result of the document?
  • Fourth, what is the unwitting testimony of the document?  In other words, what can you learn from ‘reading between the lines’?  What were the author’s assumptions?  What can you learn from the document about things that were going on that are not really part of what the author wants his reader to see – perhaps because he or she takes them for granted and part of his or her world (as opposed to the world of the historian); perhaps because he or she wants to gloss over them?
  • Fifth, what does the document add to our knowledge about the subject under investigation?  Does it support the view that we already have?  Or does it nuance or challenge that view?
Finally, it might be worth advising students to keep in mind one or two things about the written documents that historians use in looking at the period of the Second World War. The documents that follow were written by people who sometimes may have used language in a rather different way from that which is common today (for example, Eric St Johnston addresses his parents as ‘My Dear People’), their handwriting may have been unskilled, their typing-skills (these documents were written before computers) may have been poor and old type face is rarely as clear as modern, laser printing.
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