Beginner's Guide to Research

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One way or another, many members find that they want to research some aspect of the English Civil Wars period and although such research is easier now than it has ever been, it can be difficult to work out how to start.

This article is intended to provide pointers on getting started and advice on making use of the information.


Most people these days have access to the Web so most will begin by using a search engine and one of the first results to come up will be Wikipedia.
I think it’s fair to say that it’s despised by academics. Some will tell you they hate it because it isn’t written by academics. In reality, it’s because nobody knows who wrote it. The whole point of Wikipedia is that anybody can write or edit the articles.

This leads very neatly to one of the over-riding factors about research: when you find something, you have to make a value judgement about it. Why? Because you have to decide how reliable the information is.

You have to do this by asking a series of questions: who wrote it? Why did they write it? Who was it written to appeal to? Where did it appear? What does the language tell you about it? Was the author trying to persuade people to a specific point of view?

For example, early on I discovered a 17th c author called John Brinsley. He was a schoolmaster in Ashby de la Zouch in the early to mid-17th c. But I had no idea whether he was just a rich man who could afford to have books printed to promote his point of view or whether he was mainstream education or a maverick or what. So I didn’t know whether what he wrote reflected an accurate picture of education at the time.

So I’ve had to go looking for other sources and what I’ve found is that Brinsley had a very idealised view of education. For example, he depicts schoolmasters as upright citizens who inspired awe in their pupils and taught with skill and dedication. Adam Martindale was born in 1623 and left an autobiography. He has a different view of schoolmasters: he recalled some who were drunk, violent, capricious and incompetent. So it’s clear that Brinsley isn’t necessarily representing schools across the country.

This is a factor that you’ll have to address when you’re doing your own research: how accurate is your source?

Which brings me back to Wikipedia: the problem with it is that we don’t know who wrote any article within it, so we don’t know whether they’re writing from a particular point of view, whether they’re promoting a particular view or even whether or not they’ve got their facts straight. That means that we can’t make any value judgements on the text that we read.

That’s why academics don’t like Wikipedia.

That said, it does have a role to play in 2 areas:

- It can give a general over view of a subject so long as you always remember that the information you read within any article may not be accurate.

- The other point is that at the bottom of each article there’s usually a list of sources that can point you towards publications that might be more useful to you.

So, for all its failings, Wikipedia is probably the first source that you’ll find when you start searching for information online. There are likely to be thousands of others. In each case you need to evaluate the website that you find yourself reading: has it been provided by a reliable organisation? For example, if it’s the British Museum website, it’s probably going to be reliable. If it’s a website that looks as if it was put together by a man who’s more used to writing in block capitals with a coloured crayon, then it may not be reliable. (But don’t dismiss it out of hand – there are some odd people in re-enactment.)

A couple of outstanding sources are Early English Books Online (EEBO) and JSTOR – a database of academic papers. If you can find a way to get access to EEBO, it’s worth doing. Unfortunately it’s aimed at the institutional market but you might find that your local library service subscribes or if you’re associated with a university you might be able to get access. You can access it through the British Library reading rooms at St Pancras and Colindale but that may involve a significant journey. The good news about JSTOR is that you can register to use it to search academic journals online. Go to for information.

But whatever you’re looking at, the guiding principle is that you shouldn’t take as gospel what you see on websites. There are many that are invaluable. There are some that should be shut down as stupidly misleading. Even the good ones can make mistakes – just think of Hugh Trevor Roper and the Hitler diaries.


Libraries are the next most valuable resource. Most local libraries will have a local history section and you might find books that contain useful information in there. Beyond that it depends on where you live because some areas are extremely well-served, others less well. For example, anybody living within reasonable travelling distance of Birmingham can go to the Central Library there. You don’t have to be a Birmingham resident to go to the reference section. Just walk in, find the right floor and start searching. Other places have excellent reference libraries and, if you’re lucky, you might find a librarian who knows enough about the 17th century to be able to help you.

One thing to be aware of as a source is a collection called the Thomason Tracts. George Thomason was a bookseller in London and between 1640 and 1661 he collected 22,000 pamphlets, books and newspapers. In essence, he kept a copy of every printed work he could get his hands on. They’re all in the British Library now and have been catalogued so you can go and search an index, find the publication you want and see it on microfilm. They have a set at Birmingham central library although the last time I was there it hadn’t been made available since the move to the new building.

The great thing about the Thomason Tracts is that the publications within the collection are primary sources meaning that they were written at the time you’re researching. However, that doesn’t mean that they’re reliable. Read accounts from both sides at pretty much any battle during the civil war period – you’d think they were writing about different battles.

But don’t assume that the only libraries are run by local authorities. Again, in Birmingham, there’s the Birmingham and Midland Institute which has an extraordinary library – not well catalogued and in at least 3 different rooms but if you join the BMI you can have access to their books. There’s the Cadbury Library at Birmingham University and again, that’s available to outsiders. So check around to find out what libraries are within easy reach.

Further afield there’s the British Library. Anybody can register online for a Reader Pass but you have to go to the BL with two forms of identification (and if you’re taking a utilities bill, make sure it’s a recent one) to collect your pass. You’ll probably be asked why you want a Reader Pass. Just explain what it is you’re researching and you should be OK. It’ll be even better if you’ve used the online catalogue, available through the BL website and have a list of books you want to see.

Once you have your ticket, you need to go to the basement and find a locker to leave your coat and any bag you’ve taken in. You can take a laptop into the reading rooms, pencils, pads and so on but no pens. Once you’re ready, you go to the reading room of your choice: you are most likely to need to go to Humanities 1 (on floor 1) or Humanities 2 (on floor 2) and you’ll need to show your pass as you go in. There are people there with access to the online catalogue but they prefer you to order up books yourself. If you order from within the reading rooms, you might have to wait for around 40 minutes or so for the books to be brought to the collection desk for you.


The most obvious next place is second-hand bookshops. Obviously they vary in the quality of the stock and the way it’s laid out but they’re always worth searching. I found out by accident that it’s worth being as open-minded as possible about the titles. For example, I was searching through one bookshop and saw something called ‘Mr Adam’s Free Grammar School’. It’s clearly a modern book and I don’t know why I picked it off the shelf but when I looked inside it turned out to be a history of a grammar school founded in 1657. Obviously there’s only a small part of the book that’s relevant to me but it’s invaluable just the same. Since then I’ve bought histories of various schools so it’s worth thinking a bit laterally sometimes.

Following on from there is e-bay. I’ve found several books on ebay recently that have proved to be very useful simply by searching for the words history, grammar and school in the Books, Comics and Magazines category. Obviously some of the results are rubbish, but it’s surprising how many are potentially useful.


Obviously new books are always being published on a huge variety of subjects related to the English Civil Wars and the 17th century in general. In addition, though, digital printing means that we can now buy reprints of out-of-print books.

A prime example is Adam Martindale. I don’t remember how I became aware of him – probably something on a website – and when I Googled him I came across ‘The Life of Adam Martindale Written by himself and now first printed from the original manuscript in the British Museum’. It was printed in 1845 but copies of the book are available on demand for less than £15.00. It’s clearly a modern print but it’s a direct reproduction of the original.


In terms of finding information, if you're a member of Fairfax, you have access to a group of extremely knowledgeable people and they are very generous with their knowledge: ask your fellow members if they know anything about your subject. They may not but, even if they cannot help, they may know someone who can.


Then there’s just keeping your eyes open. I saw something in the Daily Telegraph recently about advice to 17th century students at Cambridge University. I tracked the source to the journal of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society, tracked them down, wrote to them and asked how I could get a copy and they were happy to sell me the relevant issue.


Whenever you're considering a book, you need to consider whether it's a primary or a secondary source. A primary source will have been created in the period being researched. So in my case, a book by John Brinsley published in 1627 counts as a primary source. A book published in 1980 and written by David Cressy in which he analyses the levels of literacy in England in the Seventeenth century would count as a secondary source. Both have to be evaluated: for example Brinsley may have been a teacher with radical ideas who could afford to have his books published or he may have been a mainstream teacher writing about typical grammar schools of his time. It is important for the researcher to do as much as possible to establish the reliability of any sources that are used. When it comes to secondary sources, the ways in which modern authors interpret historical information changes over the years so if you are reading a book written in the 19th century for example, not only will it be a secondary source, but the analysis that it provides may be out of date.

In addition, the context of the source has to be considered very carefully. For example, there was a great deal of literature produced by Catholics and Protestants in Ireland during the Civil Wars and much of it depicted horrific activities by the other side. The challenge for the researcher is to establish whether the source is balanced or following a particular agenda for political or other gain.

If this has been useful, there's another page on referencing. Trust me, you need to know about referencing.

(c) 2012 Ken Clayton