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The Historical Approach to Research


The process of learning and understanding the background and growth of a chosen field of study or profession can offer insight into organizational culture, current trends, and future possibilities. The historical method of research applies to all fields of study because it encompasses their: origins, growth, theories, personalities, crisis, etc. Both quantitative and qualitative variables can be used in the collection of historical information. Once the decision is made to conduct historical research, there are steps that should be followed to achieve a reliable result. Charles Busha and Stephen Harter detail six steps for conducting historical research (91):

  1. the recognition of a historical problem or the identification of a need for certain historical knowledge.
  2. the gathering of as much relevant information about the problem or topic as possible.
  3. if appropriate, the forming of hypothesis that tentatively explain relationships between historical factors.
  4. The rigorous collection and organization of evidence, and the verification of the authenticity and veracity of information and its sources.
  5. The selection, organization, and analysis of the most pertinent collected evidence, and the drawing of conclusions; and
  6. the recording of conclusions in a meaningful narrative.

In the field of library and information science, there are a vast array of topics that may be considered for conducting historical research. For example, a researcher may chose to answer questions about the development of school, academic or public libraries, the rise of technology and the benefits/ problems it brings, the development of preservation methods, famous personalities in the field, library statistics, or geographical demographics and how they effect library distribution. Harter and Busha define library history as “the systematic recounting of past events pertaining to the establishment, maintenance, and utilization of systematically arranged collections of recorded information or knowledge….A biography of a person who has in some way affected the development of libraries, library science, or librarianship is also considered to be library history. (93)”

There are a variety of places to obtain historical information. Primary Sources are the most sought after in historical research.  Primary resources are first hand accounts of information.  “Finding and assessing primary historical data is an exercise in detective work.  It involves logic, intuition, persistence, and common sense…(Tuchman, Gaye in Strategies of Qualitative Inquiry, 252).  Some examples of primary documents are: personal diaries, eyewitness accounts of events, and oral histories.  “Secondary sources of information are records or accounts prepared by someone other than the person, or persons, who participated in or observed an event.”  Secondary resources can be very useful in giving a researcher a grasp on a subject and may provided extensive bibliographic information for delving further into a research topic.

In any type of historical research, there are issues to consider.  Harter and Busha list three principles to consider when conducting historical research (99-100):

  1. Consider the slant or biases of the information you are working with and the ones possessed by the historians themselves.
    1. This is particularly true of qualitative research.  Consider an example provided by Gaye Tuchman:

 Let us assume that women’s letters and diaries are pertinent to ones research question and that one can locate pertinent examples.  One cannot simply read them….one must read enough examples to infer the norms of what could be written and how it could be expressed. For instance, in the early nineteenth century, some (primarily female) schoolteachers instructed girls in journal writing and read their journals to do so. How would such instruction have influenced the journals kept by these girls as adults?…it is useful to view the nineteenth-century journal writer as an informant.  Just as one tries to understand how a contemporary informant speaks from specific social location, so too one would want to establish the social location of the historical figure.  One might ask of these and other diaries: What is the characteristic of middle-class female diary writers?  What is the characteristic of this informant?  How should one view what this informant writes?

 b.    Quantitative facts may also be biased in the types of statistical data collected or in how that information was interpreted by the researcher.

  1. There are many factors that can contribute to “historical episodes”. 
  2. Evidence should not be examined from a singular point of view.

The resources that follow this brief introduction to the historical method in research provide resources for further in-depth explanations about this research method in various fields of study, and abstracts of studies conducted using this method.

Sources Cited:

1.  Busha, Charles and Stephen P. Harter. Research Methods in Librarianship: techniques and Interpretations.  Academic Press: New York, NY, 1980.

2.  Denzin, Norman K. and Yvonna S. Lincoln (editors).  Strategies of Qualitative Inquiry.  Sage Publications: London, 1998.

3.  Leming, Michael R.  “Research And Sampling Designs: Techniques For Evaluating Hypotheses”.  Found at: http://www.stolaf.edu/people/leming/soc371res/research.html,

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