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Historiography: Overview

What is a Historiography?

There are two common uses of the term "Historiography."

(One)  The historiography (general descriptor) of a topic is the sum total of the interpretations of a specific topic written by past and current historians.

  • Thus you can talk about "the state of the historiography" at a point in time, or you can "add historiography" to a paper to make it more complete.

(Two) A historiography (noun) or historiographical paper is an analysis of the interpretations of a specific topic written by past historians. 

  • Specifically, a historiography identifies influential thinkers and reveals the shape of the scholarly debate on a particular subject. 
    • The major purpose of writing a historiographical paper is to convey the scholarship of other historians on a particular subject, rather than to analyze the subject itself.
    • A historiography can be a stand-alone paper, in which case your paper examines the work completed by other historians. 
  • Alternately, a historiography can act as an introduction to a major research paper, in which you will go on to add your own analysis.
    • Thus, a good historiography does the following:
      • Points out influential books and papers that exemplified, shaped, or revolutionized a field of study.
      • Shows which scholars were most effective in changing the scope of the debate.
      • Describes the current trends in the field of study, such as which interpretation is currently in the mainstream.
      • Allows the writer (that's you!) to position themselves in the field for their analysis.
        • For example: "The historiography of the decision to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima changed over the years as new research questioned the former consensus view that the decision to drop the atomic bomb was predicated on the necessity to save American lives."

What does this mean for searching?

  • historiography will be useful as a search term
  • Since you will be searching for change  over time on a topic, you will want to make use of a databases' ability to limit a search by date of publication


"In a nutshell, historiography is the history of history. Rather than subjecting actual events ... to historical analysis, the subject of historiography is the history of the history of the event: the way it has been written, the sometimes conflicting objectives pursued by those writing on it over time, and the way in which such factors shape our understanding of the actual event at stake, and of the nature of history itself."

  •  "Writing On History", Peter Conolly-Smith, Assistant Professor of History at Queens College

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Rafia Mirza

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