Some Reading Strategies for History Courses

A List of Informal Suggestions

(Courtesy of Professor Cathryn Carson, University of California, Berkeley. Used with permission.)

  1. History isn't just about learning facts and dates. It's also about understanding how and why things happened. So don't get bogged down in taking in all the facts and dates, at the expense of the big picture. The key is to ask yourself, "Why would this event be important, and how does it relate to other events?" These questions give you the framework to hang your facts and dates on. For instance, it's not so important to remember all the dates that show up in the narratives, but rather to ask, "Which dates refer to especially significant things, and what do they tell us about the order in which things happened?" This is not to say that you can forget all facts and dates, but it is to suggest remembering them within a meaningful context.

  2. History readings often give you more details of information than you actually need to remember. Again, here the big picture is important. Authors of historical accounts often include details to make their cases more persuasive or appealing. But on the same principle as above, not all of these details need to be noted down and stored away.

  3. History is interpretive. This means that people will sometimes tell different stories about events or attribute different significance to them. When you read history you should keep in mind that the accounts you have before you do not represent the final truth. This does not mean that history is simply made up or that "anything goes." Rather, these historical accounts represent the efforts of (usually) intelligent, thoughtful people to make sense of what we can find out about what happened in the past.

  4. History courses often have a lot of reading. Therefore you need to practice active, intelligent reading. Keep asking yourself, "What is the point of this book or article? What am I supposed to be getting out of it?" Then organize your reading around answering those questions. Often it helps to scan material quickly to get a sense of what the point is before really getting into it; often it helps to look back over it after reading it to fix the main points in your understanding.

  5. History courses use different kinds of materials that demand different kinds of reading. For instance, a narrative of someone's life will probably be quicker and easier to read than a historian's analysis of an event and its reasons. A collection of primary documents will make you ask different questions than will a textbook account.