…or your local independent bookseller.
There’s two books on the same topic, same person, or same event you see before you. Both reasonably priced, and priced in a reasonably similar range. Similar enough that you have no idea which to pick up and purchase.
A friend of mine, wishing to become more comfortably versed in the historic debates surrounding our Constitution (they were genuinely shocked that the United States had an entire government under The Articles of Confederation before we crafted our current one in the 1787 Constitutional Convention), asked for book recommendations, and after a pause, asked how I choose my history books in the first place.
FOOTNOTES: I pick up the book, flip to a page and pick a number, any number corresponding to a footnote. I flip to the footnotes in the back, and see what source is being highlighted. Is this a primary source? Something from history, from the examined historic person, or from a witness to a historic event? Or are the footnotes focused on secondary scholarship? Is this author quoting another scholar, another work? Is that scholar and their work one I trust?
If it’s a topic, person, or event I’m relatively familiar with, I choose the book that has more primary sources from the period highlighted in its footnotes.
If it’s a topic, person, or event that I couldn’t distinguish from Adam, Eve, and the Garden of Eden (translation: I dunno know shit about it), honestly it matters a little less whether it’s a primary or secondary source at this point in my scholarship. If I don’t know about something, I’m just trying to get a general context, wrap my head around the situation, and figure out what questions to ask. Then I can move forward in my “deeper dive” among the primary sources.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Who is this author crediting for their scholarship, thanking for helping them in their journey? That can tell you a lot. There’s one book I keep on my shelf as a “Danger-Will-Robinson” warning of what maybe not to do when interpreting history. Anonymity is kept here to protect those who be guilty of misrepresenting the depth of their scholarship. It wasn’t so much that they made false claims with the information included, but in a book about a complex and multi-faceted conflict, the book’s bias seemed heavily weighted toward one particular side. Representation of opposing sides was relatively quiet. Danger, Will Robinson.
About two chapters in, I flipped to the footnotes. Plenty of primary sources. Check. Exactly what I was looking for. I flipped to the acknowledgements. Ah. There was the rub.
The folks mentioned in the acknowledgements were representatives of a particular side that this book seemed to lean towards. Any mention in the acknowledgements of other representatives of opposing sides, or other invested perspectives of this historic conflict, were absent. Absent to the point that you wondered if this author had done due diligence and even reached out to the representatives of these other invested perspectives. Checking the Acknowledgements before I purchased could have helped me detect this obvious bias early. Lesson learned, and well-remembered.
That’s it. I hope this might be helpful.
Copyright Off The Porch History 2021