Historical Research

Before we begin to look at the history of media, we need to first ask ourselves what history is, and what assumptions (progress? chronology?) and notions of historical time inform our writing of history; and whose histories we're writing (historiography). Is history just a series of events? Is there a history, or are there histories, plural -- and, if the latter, are all histories equally valid? Is history the product of the actions of a group of "great men"? Is history little more than storytelling? Is history "discovered," or do we "impose" it on the past?

Historian Alan Munslow discusses the challenges -- many posed by postmodernism -- facing historical knowledge today:

...[S]ince the 1960s and 1970s something has changed at this epistemological level. Doubts about the empirical-analytical as the privileged path to historical knowing have emerged. This has not happened in history alone, of course. In all the arts, humanities, social sciences, and even the physical and life sciences the question is increasingly being put, how can we be sure that empiricism and inference really does get us close to the true meaning of the past? In history how can we trust our sources - not because they are forgeries or missing, but because of the claims empiricism is forced to make about our ability not only to find the data, but also just as importantly represent their meaning accurately? It is not an abstract or scholastic philosophical question to ask, where does meaning come from in history? Is it the past itself? Is its meaning simply ushered in by the historian. Is the historian merely the midwife to the truth of the past? Or is the historian unavoidably implicated in the creation of a meaning for the past. Does the past contain one true meaning or several? Is there one story to be discovered or several that can be legitimately generated? I think most historians today would agree on the latter analysis. The difference comes over the consequences of that implication, and what it does for truth. In other words is it the historian who provides the truth of the past as she represents it rather than as she finds it? This is the essence of the postmodern challenge, the turn to the narrative-linguistic and its implications. ("What History Is")

The Institute of Historical Research's "History In Focus" online journal presents several resources that address the question "what is history" today?

Media histories can take various levels or scopes of analysis. Here are a few:

  • A history of communication. Scannell says that "media" and "communication" are quite different, have different histories, and require different research methodologies (198). Innis, with his concept of media "bias"; Ong, with his discussion of orality and literacy; and McLuhan, with his ideas of media ecologies and global villages, all present histories of communication. The flaw in many of these histories is their exhibition of technological determinism -- that is, the historians reify the media and present them as outside social influence and the control of their makers.
  • A history of media. We need to realizing that "the media," as we know it (thanks in large part to McLuhan), has been in existence only since the early 1960s. Thus, we must take into consideration the history of the concept, and the paradigms that shaped that concept, before we historicize anything" (Scannell 198). McLuhan and Friedrich Kittler offer examples of this kind of research. Brian Winston's "How Are Media Born?" is another and Paul Starr's The Creation of the Media: The Political Origins of Mass Communications (Basic) provide two others.
  • A history of a particular medium. Eisenstein's work (although her holistic approach could be applied in creating a history of media) and Eric Barnouw's Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television are good examples.
  • a history of a particular industry. Scannell and Cardiff's work and Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell's Film History: An Introduction (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994) focus on particular industries.
  • A history of a particular genre. Studies of horror films, film noir, anime, reality television, or shelter magazines are all genre studies.
  • A history of a major media figure. Studies of particular filmmakers, journalists, videographers, graphic designers, etc., are examples.

The University of Minneasota's Media History Project approaches "media history" through multiple levels of analysis: they address oral and scribal cultures, which are histories of communication; printing, publishing, journalism, etc., which are histories of imedia industries; radio, film, television, which could be regarded either as media industries are individual mediums (sic).

Scannell addresses several new flavors of history that have arisen in an attempt to make up for perceived lacks in the history-as-events model, or the "great man" theories of history. "Conjunctural" histories, for one, attempt to analyze the convergence of a variety of political, economic, and other social forces in ways to precipitate particualar events or actions. Elizabeth Eisenstein's work on the "printing press as an agent of change" situates this new technology at the nexus of a variety of social forces. Similarly, Michael Schudson's Discovering the News is concerned primarily "with the relationship between the institutionalization of modern journalism and general currents in economic, political, social and cultural life." In the end, he found that these issues converge "at the issue of "'objectivity' as an ideology or norm for practicing journalists" (Scannell 200).

Several historians have written "social histories" -- histories that explore how particular things, ideas, events, etc., have affected the way people live their lives, or have effected changes in their thoughts, behaviors, experiences, etc. Asa Briggs has written A Social History of thed Media, Geoffrey Hughes has provided us with a social history of swearing, and Christian Warren brings us a much-needed social history of lead poisoning. Yep, you heard that right: it actually has a social history. In fact, Amazon lists over 5500 "a social history of..." titles. Sheesh. We have social histories of television and cinema and music. Scannell and Cardiff attempted to "invent" a social history of broadcasting -- but in doing so, they found that they couldn't write broadcasting's social history without knowing more about the political, social, cultural, and historical contexts within which broadcasting is situated. So, they had to construct other histories: "of entertainment in the prewar period, or of the state of musical culture at the time" (Scannell 204). (See also, just for fun: the social histories of curry, cod, salt, the potato, spice, chocolate, the screwdriver, and the colors red and blue and mauve.)

Historians are also writing "histories from below" -- histories of the underrepresented, the subaltern, the repressed, the quotidian. What we still need in this age of globalization, Scannell says, are comparative media histories -- especially those that compare the national histories of various media in order to reveal both their cultural specificities and their commonalities. RP: What possibilities do you see for these kinds of histories? What "histories from below" would you like to see written (perhaps by yourself?!)? What fruitful intercultural comparisons might we make?

Articles from Media History and The Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, both available in the New School library's digital resources, represent the range of approaches to historical media research. Search the New School Library’s electronic resources – particularly “Communication and Mass Media Complete” in the Periodical Databases – to find articles from these journals, and from any other results yielded from a search for "media history." Read the abstracts of a few of these articles to get a sense of what questions researchers are proposing, what methodologies they are using, and what conclusions they are making. Try to download the full text of a few articles, if for no other reason than to familiarize yourself with the wealth of full-text digital resources that are available.

See also:


[H]istorical work is partly determined by the available data (or lack of it), and partly by the predispositions and attitudes brought to bear upon the past by historians in their present (Scannell 201).

Identifying Your Research Focus

As Scannell notes, "a basic methodological and historical issue for historians is how they establish manageable time spans for their activities" (193). Let's get this out of the way: you simply cannot write an all-encompassing history -- a history of television from Philo T. Farnswoth (or even before -- say, Plato's cave) to HDTV, or a history of computing from ENIAC to the iMac. Okay, maybe you can -- and some people have -- but you'd need tenure, lots of funding, and many graduate assitants. I hate to break it to you -- but you don't have any of those things. Such topics are far too big and cumbersome for even the most brilliant, broad-minded, and patient researchers.

You need limits -- but you also have to justify those limits. What are the "bookends" for the time frame you've chosen -- and why did you choose them? Are there particular watershed moments in the history of your research subject that would enable you to conveniently bracket the timespan you'll be addressing? If you're focusing on network television coverage of immigration issues, for instance, you might begin by drafting a timeline of immigration-related legislation, then using that timeline to help you choose a reasonable, justifiable timeframe for your research.

A former student submitted a thesis proposal in which she proposed to look at the social impacts of cellphone cameras. She stated that her research would span a five-year period. Why five years? Because that was a "manageable" amount of research, she said. Of course personal limitations do factor into determinations of how "big," at what scale, your project will be. If you've got a year and $1000 to make your documentary, you simply don't have time to shuffle through 30 years' worth of archival material. However, your limitations are not sufficient in justifying your project's scope. The limits should come from the material, from the research subject, too. Find a point where your needs and limitations meet up with your material's or subject's natural "breaks" or inherent organization -- and allow those two factors to simultaneously determine your project's scope.

Archival Research

As Newcomb and Lotz told us in our previous lesson, much culture industry and production research is historical and depends on the use of archival materials. In work that has attempted to piece together the histories of entire industries -- like David Bordwell's The Classical Hollywood Cinema (1985) -- of particular studios, media companies or networks; of individual productions or individual filmmakers/journalists/etc., researchers often make use of myriad primary historical records: contracts,inter-office memoranda, extant interviews, handbooks, production manuals, instructional pamphlets, variously revised scripts, and story conference memoranda recording decision-making processes (p. 63).

Paddy Scannell and David Cardiff, authors of A Social History of Broadcasting, Vol. 1: Serving the Nation (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), consulted minutes of BBC management boards and departmental meetings, policy files, production files, transcripts of broadcasts, press clippings, BBC publications, legislation and reports of government committees, industry and news periodicals of the historical period in order to piece together broadcasting's "social history."

Archives are collections of original unpublished material and primary sources. Scannell and Cardiff made use of the BBC Written Archives at Caversham -- but many researchers seeking access to industry documentation, financial information, etc., find that that information is proprietary, which means that the material is private, the property of some company or organization who is not at all obligated to make its records openly available to the public. There are indeed many public archives -- but these institutions aren't "public" in the same way that a "public library" is. Because the archive's materials are irreplaceble, archive security is usually tight, and access to it is controlled -- so, in nearly all cases, you must make an appointment to use an archival collection. Library and Archives Canada have put together a reference document for locating, accessing, and using archives: "Using Archives: A Practical Guide for Researchers." Some archives have digitized their material, but much archival material is one-of-a-kind and site-specific, which means that you must go to the archive to access the material -- but this should not be regarded as an inconvenience, for reasons I'll explain below. Because archival research can be expensive, since you often have to pay for travel and lodging, many researchers seek grants to support this kind of research.

The UCLA Film & Television Archive doesn't make its material available online -- but you can see, on their website, the impressive variety of materials they've preserved, and which they often make available through individual and public screenings. They will loan materials -- but at a steep cost. Click here for some research FAQs. Anthology Film Archives, in New York, has a fantastic collection of experimental and avant garde films -- but you have to go to the archives to access them.

How do you find archival collections? Sometimes other authors writing on similar topics will identify archival collections in their endnotes or bibliographies. Research librarians are another great source. Bowling Green State University lists several reference books that can direct you to archival collections. Here are just a few: Directory of Archives and Manuscript Repositories in the United States, Directory of Historical Organizations in the United States and Canada, Directory of Oral History Collections, Directory of Popular Culture Collections, Directory of Special Libraries and Information Centers, Guide to Information Resources in Ethnic Museum, Library, and Archival Collections in the United States. Check your local library for these resources.

Click on the image above to access a map of the National Archives building. [Image Credit: National Archives]

And here are some Internet resources:

RP: Search some of the lists and catalogues listed above. Do you see any collections that might be useful in your own research projects?

Once you're there, you should usually plan to stay a while -- in part because you can't take anything home with you, but also because you're bound to be overwhelmed by the volume of material, in varying degrees of (dis)organization, open to you. Archival research is (dare I say it?) lots of fun; it's like a treasure hunt. You're touching materials that perhaps no one has touched since the archivist placed them in their files. You're finding significance in materials that others might dismiss as clutter. You're piecing together a history from varied documents, similar to the way that an archaeologist pieces together the shards of a shattered artefact.

W. H. McDowell, author of Historical Research: A Guide for Writers of Dissertations, Theses, Articles, and Books (New York: Longman, 2002) identifies some of the kinds of historical resources that are often available in archives and special collections:

  • Unpublished Documents: “Unpublished source material is often regarded by historians as providing a more accurate record of past events than that outlined in other printed sources, such as published reports and historical pamphlets. However, their usefulness may depend on who wrote them, why they were written, and when they were compiled. The minutes of a company, public corporation, government department or university may provide a more detailed and perhaps a more accurate record of events than their published annual reports, because the former are circulated to a more restricted audience and not intended to be seen by the public. Documents do not necessarily provide a complete account of past events, but it is in the unpublished minutes, memos, letters and papers that we would expect to find the reasons for decisions taken by individuals or organizations.” (McDowell 56)
  • Letters and Diaries
  • Memoirs and Autobiographies
  • Oral Evidence: Oral historians are “able to glean valuable information about how individuals make sense of past events and then place theses experiences within a much wider social context.” (McDowell 59)
  • Official Publications: government documents
  • Business Records: archives, records offices
  • Local History Records
  • Newspapers
  • Paintings, Prints, Cartoons, Maps
  • Photographs: link to NY Historical Society
  • Films

McDowell also provides a helpful discussion of evaluating primary sources in his Historical Research (pp. 109-125). History Matters, a project of CUNY's American Social History Project and Center for Media and Learning and George Mason University's Center for History and New Media, provides some advice for Making Sense of Film and Making Sense of Maps as historical documents.

When working with and taking notes from archival materials, it's important to meticulously document your sources. Be sure to note: (1) author, (2) title of document (official title, or “minutes, report, memo, etc.”), (3) date, (4) page, folio, paragraph, (5) title of archive collection, (6) title of file, (7) archive or repository; shelf mark or file number. The National Archives have developed some guidelines for citing material in their collection. Here's the proper way to cite a film:

Prelude to War; Motion Picture 111 OF 1 (Orientation Film No. 1); Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, Record Group 111; National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD

And here's a citation for a textual record:

Amos T. Ackerman, Attorney General, to Richard Crowley, U.S. Attorney, New York, Nov. 23, 1871; Vol. C, Oct. 27, 1871-Apr. 23, 1873, p. 60; Instruction Books, 1870-1904; General Records, Letters Sent, 1849-1919; General Records of them Department of Justice, Record Group 60; National Archives Building, Washington, DC.

Yet despite the fact that the campaign to digitize much archival material has improved the accessibility of this archival material, accessibility isn't enough. In a June 24, 2005, edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Roy Rosenzweig write: "Thus far we have done much better at democratizing access to resources than at providing the kind of instruction that would give meaning to those resources..... For the moment, the danger for students venturing onto the Web is not that they will find either bogus letters or comic strips, but that they won't know how to "read" the vast number of valuable primary sources that they find. It remains to be seen whether we can create useful online aids that not only make information available, but assist users in learning to discriminate and analyze that information." RP: Do you have any suggestions for how this might be done?

Oral History

If you know of someone who has valuable personal historical knowledge of your research topic, you might set up an interview. Oral History is a "methodology" that validates personal experience -- and personal accounts of experience -- as research resources. History Matters defines oral history as follows:

[O]ral history might be understood as a self-conscious, disciplined conversation between two people about some aspect of the past considered by them to be of historical significance and intentionally recorded for the record. Although the conversation takes the form of an interview, in which one person--the interviewer--asks questions of another person--variously referred to as the interviewee or narrator--oral history is, at its heart, a dialogue. The questions of the interviewer, deriving from a particular frame of reference or historical interest, elicit certain responses from the narrator, deriving from that person's frame of reference, that person's sense of what is important or what he or she thinks is important to tell the interviewer. The narrator's response in turn shapes the interviewer's subsequent questions, and on and on.

Visit History Matters and browse their Making Sense of Oral History pages. Also, download the Smithsonian's Folklife and Oral History Interviewing Guide. RP: Which of the historical "scopes of analysis," outlined in the first section of this lesson, would best lend themselves to the use of oral histories? When and why might the first-hand collection of oral histories be preferable to accessing histories already chronicled in secondary sources?