Welcome to historybooks, the website of Leslie Howsam's research-in-progress: this project is a publishing history of history books, focusing on Britain from about 1850 to 1950. The buttons on the left side of the screen provide access to bibliographies of recent scholarship, a reference work called "Sources on Historians" which provides basic information, and points to further sources, on historical writers in this period.
It was a century when the past of Britain and the empire was a vital part of public discourse – so much so that new standards within the scholarly world, for rigorous methodology and objectivity, came into conflict with two external sets of standards: the need for a pedagogy that would prepare people for citizenship and for leadership – and standards for a literary narrative that could engender patriotism.
History was both academic discipline and popular genre, as well as the vehicle of a national pedagogy. The medium bearing much of the weight of this cultural burden was the history book; by no coincidence, this was also the century of a flourishing book and print culture where the technologies of print and popular literacy had made possible the cheap book, while competition from other media was absent or minimal. Recent scholarship has illuminated both trends, but combining the two raises intriguing new questions. What did publishers make of the history book as a business proposition? And to whom were they turning for reliable manuscripts that could be transformed into well-reviewed and commercially successful books?
The purpose of this project is to think through the changing perceptions of history, as both discipline and narrative, from the perspective of the history of the book. I have been working in archives and libraries since 1999, with the aid of a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada which has enabled me to engage a succession of University of Windsor student research assistants. During this time I have given several conference papers on the subject, and a number of publications are in print or in preparation. This “Historybooks” website is designed to share the results of my research-in-progress. It began with an apparently straightforward question driven by my interest in combining bibliography and historiography: if I were to seek out the historians’ letters surviving in publishers’ archives, as well as the correspondence with publishers among historians’ papers, I would have to know the names of people writing history in Britain during the period 1850-1950. This ambition turned out to be anything but straightforward, and the results presented here cannot claim to be comprehensive. Nevertheless, Sources for the Study of British Historians is the public face of my research database – it gives the names and dates of people who wrote history between 1850 and 1950, and designates the reference works where further information, if any, can be found. Where archival records exist, these are normally captured by the National Register of Archives of the Historical Manuscripts Commission. When a historian is the subject of a biography (or autobiography), a citation is provided. At present this list contains over 1100 names, and continues to expand. I welcome correspondence about the list, and about other aspects of the study of British historians and the publishers of history books.