The next meeting of the History Journal Club will be held on Tuesday, October 20th at 2pm in DM370. For the October meeting, we will focus on reading and using secondary sources. To help us springboard into that discussion, the October article is Linford D. Fisher, “‘Dangerous Designes’: The 1676 Barbados Act to Prohibit New England Indian Slave Importation.” Fisher uncovered the full text of the 1676 Barbadian “Act of Explanation to the Act of Negroes, and to prohibite the bringing of Indians to this Island.” From the title, many historians assumed previously that the act banned all importation of enslaved Native Americans to Barbados, whereas the act only barred New England Indians. Fisher’s work thus marked a turning point for historians’ discussions of slavery in Barbados and the Atlantic trade in enslaved Native North Americans. The arguments and conclusions of older secondary sources, in particular, must now be reconsidered.
Many students get to college with the idea that it is essential to read every single word on each page of an assigned history text. For many secondary source reading, however, this approach is not the best use of time. Rather, the reader should actively engage with the text, locating the author’s central argument, and then follow that argument through the rest of the piece. For more, make sure you read our recent blog entry about reading secondary sources.
All college students are assigned a lot of reading. It is part of the job. History majors, in particular, suffer from a mountain of books and articles. Depending on the class, a large part of this reading will be secondary source books and articles. Patrick Rael of Bowdoin College put together a helpful list for how to read such history books and articles. Although he goes into more depth, the basic points are:
1) Read the title and table of contents. This information will tell you what the book is about and the general structure of the text.
2) Approach a reading “from the outside in.” Read the introduction and conclusion, which should help you find the author’s thesis. Also, in the introduction should be a more detailed discussion of text’s structure in relation to the author’s argument. Next, read chapters and article sections “from the outside in.” Read the first and last couple of paragraphs of a chapter or section. This approach should allow you to quickly gain insight into the major themes and sub-arguments of the text.
3) Only now should you read the text, but remember it is not a novel. You are not reading a classic of English Literature on a rainy Sunday. Not every word and sentence are of vital importance. You need to read actively, focus on following the author’s thesis through their topic sentences, evaluate their evidence for this thesis, and mark a few select areas that seem pertinent to the author’s argument.
For more information on how to read history secondary sources, I head to the How to Read a Secondary Source section of Purdue University’s excellent Reading, Writing, and Researching for History: A Guide for College Students by Patrick Rael.
Best, Dr. Ferdinando