Great Tutorials—Analyzing Historical Documents



6 June 2014

"Documents are liars," according to Lawrence of Arabia.1 Certainly, they can deceive us—even when the creator did not intend to be deceptive. Words change meaning across time. Customs and practices continually evolve. An interpretation based on today’s common occurrence or common thought might seriously misconstrue the event that a document reports. A “helpful” transcription of a record book might create errors that mislead us. A reconstruction of a damaged register can obscure the fact that some records have been lost.

Then there are the intended deceptions, created by all those situations in which folks have a need to prove "what just ain’t so.”

So, how do we get within reasonable distance of reality, when we peer into the past through so many warped lenses? The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University offers two helpful—and free—tutorials in the analysis of historical documents. Both are well worth the investment of our time.

  • Women in World History (
  • World History Sources  (


1 This particular version of the T. E. Lawrence quote is provided by Conal Furay and Michael J. Salevouris in The Methods and Skills of History: A Practical Guide, 2nd or 3rd ed. (Wheeling, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, 2000 or 2010), 139, citing "Barzun and Graff, Modern Researcher, 50”; PDF'd pages posted online by Mark Baker, Ph.D., University of Kansas, for the course “HIST 103: Introduction to History” ( : accessed 30 May 2014).  For complications that exist in the identification of both the Furay and Salevouris book and the Barzun and Graff book that they cite, see "TUESDAY'S TEST: Citing Complicated Web Sources," Quicktips ( : posted 3 June 2014) and "EE's Answer," QuickTips ( : posted 4 June 2014).

PHOTO SOURCE: "T. E. Lawrence," WikiQuote ( : accessed 30 May 2014).