Review of The Historians Toolbox: A Students Guide to the Theory and Craft of History Third Edition by Robert C. Williams M.E. Sharpe

The Historian’s Toolbox: A Student’s Guide to the Theory and Craft of History,Third Edition. Robert C. Williams. Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2012. 230 p. Cloth ISBN: 9780765633262; Paper ISBN: 9780765633279
The Historian’s Toolbox: A Student’s Guide to the Theory and Craft of History is Robert C. Williams’ third edition of this popular introductory text. As befits a guide to a craft, Williams focuses primarily on the tools required in, as he puts it, “doing” history (xiii). The approach is well-considered and suitably executed for advanced secondary school or college users. Instructors will likely find it equally useful in structuring their own thoughts and considering the way they introduce historical study, even if they never offer the text directly to students. Certainly there are other texts with a similar goal (see, for example, the recent review of Davidson & Lytle’s After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection in this journal); however, the introduction of a third edition of this text rightly reflects that Williams has reliably provided a practical and flexible resource for both students and instructors.
The first part of The Historian’s Toolbox introduces major theoretical themes in the discipline of history. These theoretical chapters are blessedly brief and accessible, especially on such topics as “Story.” These chapters offer ample scope for classroom discussion where the issues raised could receive full reflection. The chapters lead into each other but can function as discrete units or in combination with later chapters from Parts II and III of the book or outside materials from the instructor (Williams helpfully suggests some additional reading and discussion questions for each chapter). For an advanced class, these chapters provide a straightforward background to establish key points before diving into the head-spinning theoreticians of history and time like Mircea Eliade or George Kubler. These very brief chapters are sometimes cursory, but not to a degree that would be likely to disconcert the more experienced scholar.
More difficult are asides that would confuse the conscientious but uninformed student, like the comment in Chapter 4 (“Metahistory”) that “the intellectual revolutions initiated by the British naturalist Charles Darwin and the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche made God extraneous to history, if not entirely dead” (20). It is unlikely that a student of the level for whom this book was written would understand the joke. Chapter 4 in particular seemed plagued by such problems, yet it was also one of the most fascinating chapters in Part I. The instructor would need to be particularly careful in assigning and teaching this chapter, but the reward for the extra explanations the chapter requires will likely be especially strong student response. The chapters on “Anti-History” and “The Future” are also engaging, offering a lot of scope for the instructor to introduce specific cases that are particularly relevant to the specific subject of the course.
As might be expected from the title of the book, it is on Part II, “Tools of History,” that Williams expends the most effort. Unlike the first part, which would be best used in concert with further classroom discussion, the second part is truly freestanding and could be assigned to students as a reference. Most classes, especially at the college level, do not have much time to spend on the fundamentals of research and writing, especially since some students would find this material repetitive. While instructors will probably find little to spark their own imaginations in Part II, they may at least find some pressure lifted at the way Williams breaks down the research process for their students. Even experienced students are likely to find some useful hints that are rarely discovered at the undergraduate level, including ways to quickly assess resources. The issue of how to deal with distracting but helpful content also comes up regularly in courses at all levels, so Williams’ inclusion of how to use footnotes to address peripheral issues (Chapter 10, “Credit and Acknowledgment”) is helpful to beginning and more experienced students of history. Chapters 11 and 12, “Narrative and Explanation” and “Interpretation,” will suit students of both beginning and advanced levels, suggesting as they do the changing styles of history and the options for presenting it. This should help students realize how much history has not yet been “done” and the opportunities and flexibility for their own contributions to the field, as well as prompting them to read existing historical texts critically.
While Part II is an excellent tool, there are a few considerations that may be a problem in classrooms. Williams includes frequent examples and case studies to illustrate his points, most of which are engaging and thorough. However, these examples are almost exclusively drawn from the western world, and particularly from American History. This may be a boon at times, since the average student is perhaps more likely to be aware of the background for these historical moments, but it also may be less relevant for students outside western history who would appreciate a few examples closer to what they are studying. It also limits students’ exposure to the breadth of opportunities for historical analysis. Such students might also find it helpful if the sections on non-textual history showed more positive examples of good uses of these resources. Chapter 9.5, “Images,” which uses the common example of (possibly) staged Civil War photography, seems to serve mostly as a warning to students against the use of images as sources, though Williams likely intended to merely suggest the critical use of visual evidence. More examples of appropriate uses of non-textual sources would be appreciated, especially for instructors using this work in courses outside of history departments or covering fields in which written documentation is limited.
A final concern with Part II is simply a consideration of the speed at which research practices are changing, especially in the classroom. Though the third edition includes a much-expanded section on the use of the Internet (Chapter 20, “History on the Internet”), Williams’ consideration of technology tends to be added via new chapters rather than worked into existing ones. Through most of the book, this is not a problem; at certain points, however, it is unrealistic. This is perhaps most apparent in Chapter 8, “Doing History: An Overview,” in which Williams advocates students using systems of index cards for their note-taking, and touts the usefulness of computers in writing drafts as though the practice were not common. This is unfortunate, since Williams’ suggestions for students on how to take notes are among his most thoughtful points in the book, and it would be a shame for students to skim that part since the methods do not fit with the way they currently work. Williams’ basic method could be easily adapted to such common and free tools as Evernote; should a fourth edition be considered, the use of computers will need to be incorporated at a more basic level. Such considerations should not deter the instructor from directing students to this book. The good practices and techniques suggested by Williams, and the clarity with which they are expressed, make Part II immensely valuable; the issues have been given attention here in part because the instructor may be surprised by coming across them in an otherwise solid resource.
Part III, “The Relevance of History,” is a new section for the third edition, and its content is excellent even though it seems like the included chapters would make more sense integrated into Parts I and II. Chapter 14, “Everyday History,” which introduces this final section, considers why history takes the approaches it does, as well as how people conduct research in their daily lives. This chapter might be better read as an introduction along with Part I. Several of the other chapters should have been included in the toolbox that makes up Part II, and would be best treated that way in a course, especially the chapters on oral history, material culture, GIS and forensics, and History on the Internet. Students in a high school or early college course might not perform some of these techniques, but they are likely to encounter research using them, and there are growing opportunities for students to attempt GIS research and to analyze material culture directly in the classroom. These chapters seem to have all been placed in the new section at the end to highlight them to an instructor considering switching from the second edition to the third, making it clear that there is about 25 percent new content. The additions are welcomed, necessary and extensive, but the instructor using this text would probably wish to interweave them among the other chapters in Parts I and II, rather than using them in the order presented.
This text, as readers of the first two editions will expect, is engaging and concisely written, even with the third edition’s additional 50 pages. The questions and short assignments proposed throughout are adaptable and open-ended, and the text as a whole is flexible and suitable for students at a variety of levels of experience and interest. The content is modular, making it easy for the instructor to adapt the text to the course rather than tying the course to the progress of the text. Overall, it proves as much a tool for the instructor as a guide to the student.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Fischer, University of North Carolina
Edited by Rebecca A. Nedostup
(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 7, Fall, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]