• University of Nottingham
  • British Library
  • University of Birmingham logo

Learning from the Past: A Guide for the Curious Researcher

Learn how to understand the past to explain the present, and get to know the amazing sources and resources of the British Library.

6,915 enrolled on this course

Learning from the Past: A Guide for the Curious Researcher
  • Duration3 weeks
  • Weekly study4 hours
  • 100% onlineTry this course for free
  • Extra BenefitsFrom $49Find out more

Discover sources that help you understand the past, and explain the present!

The language of history determines how we view our world and understand urgent issues, such as the environment, conflict and human rights. This language is shaped by documents held in libraries and archives, and the ways in which researchers interpret these is constantly developing. This course will provide you with skills to discover and critically analyse the records of the past, including hidden treasures from the British Library’s collections. Researchers at the University of Nottingham and University of Birmingham will show how these collections influence the way we view our world today.

Download video: standard or HD

Skip to 0 minutes and 5 seconds Populism. Inequality. Environmental degradation. Slavery. Wherever we look, the problems of the present are steeped in the past. We need to understand this past to make sense of the world we live in. But how do we get behind the media stories and what politicians tell us about history to get at the facts, and to form our own, independent judgement? This course will give you the skills to do precisely that. Academics from the universities of Nottingham, Birmingham, and archivists and curators from the British Library in London will share their insights and help you along the way to set you off on your own personal journey of discovery.

Skip to 0 minutes and 45 seconds We’ll debate what we can learn from the past, but we’ll also think about when history gets in the way. Have you ever wondered about the political language that we use to describe present problems? This language is a product of the past. But is it still appropriate for the present and for the future? We will introduce the collections of the British Library, one of the largest libraries in the world. We will showcase our unique historical resources and introduce you to our digital sources, including recorded sound and the web archive. Throughout the course, we’d like you to think about your own research projects. What sources will you choose to research? How will you discover them?

Skip to 1 minute and 22 seconds And what methods will you use to analyse them? Whether you are a researcher, a journalist, a campaigner, or just a curious citizen, please join us in a global community of citizens to explore the past and better understand the world in which we live.


  • Week 1

    How to "read" history, and why it matters

    • Why history?

      Old stuff -- does it still matter?

    • History and political language

      We look at the problems for researchers in accessing the language of the past from a practioner's point of view.

    • Cracking the Code: Linguistics and the analysis of large bodies of text

      What is Corpus Linguistics? How does it work -- and why should we use it?

    • Skills: Reading your sources critically

      What is the difference between primary and secondary sources? How do historians use and evaluate written evidence?

  • Week 2

    History as images and artefacts

    • Picturing territory: Maps and topography

      History always takes place somewhere. But how do we imagine territory and locations? Is the sense of place itself a product of history?

    • Images of modern slavery: Political mobilisation or historical stereotyping?

      In this activity, we look at slavery as a case study to discuss how history shapes the ways we act politically in the present.

    • Images of victims: Empathy or stolen agency?

      Photos are powerful historical sources. But are they useful? And are they truthful?

    • Skills: Locating sources

      You have already learnt about sources. Here, we look at where to find them -- and discover some surprising challenges...

  • Week 3

    Thinking outside the box

    • Our Place in the World

      Whose History? Histories do not belong just to particular communities and nation-states. Here, we explore some that cut across traditional borders and boundaries....

    • The Sounds of the Past

      Ever wondered what is left out in the historical records? Here are some ideas for listening to voices of the past that are rarely in the archives...

    • Skills: Digital collections and "good" research questions

      How can digital archives help historical research? And how do we formulate research questions that will lead you to discover what you want to know?

    • Summary and Ways Forward

      Time to reflect on the writing of history. What will you be doing next? And have we supported you in the right way?

When would you like to start?

Start straight away and learn at your own pace. If the course hasn’t started yet you’ll see the future date listed below.

  • Available now

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Develop a research project on a topic of your choice
  • Assess the relevant scholarship and existing research
  • Collect and evaluate relevant primary sources from a variety of genres (written text, images/photos, oral history, recorded sound, web archive)
  • Debate your research plan with educators and other learners, be inspired by their ideas
  • Evaluate how history influences the contemporary world

Who is the course for?

No prior knowledge or training is needed. This course is for people who are interested in how history informs the ways in which we view the world today, or are already using records to find out about the past. You may be thinking about starting a postgraduate course, want to find out more about a specialist interest, or are working on a family or local history project.

What software or tools do you need?

You don’t need any specific tools beyond those that you are using to access this course.

Who will you learn with?

Head of Contemporary British Publications at the British Library, and leading on “Learning from the Past”. I’m excited to find out what people are studying, and sharing our amazing resources

I am a Lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Nottingham, and my research engages with political ideas.

A lead educator on this course, I am Professor of modern history at Nottingham, and specialize on history and photography, and the legacies of National Socialism and genocide.

I completed my PhD in History at the University of Nottingham in 2019. I am currently employed by UoN as a Research and Knowledge Exchange Associate in the School of Humanuties.

Who developed the course?

The University of Nottingham

The University of Nottingham is committed to providing a truly international education, inspiring students with world-leading research and benefitting communities all around the world.

British Library

The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world’s greatest research libraries.

University of Birmingham

The University of Birmingham is a public research university, consistently listed as a leading UK university and ranked among the top 100 in the world.

Learner reviews

Join this course

Start this couse for free, upgrade for extra benefits, or buy Unlimited to access this course and hundreds of other short courses for a year.



Join free and you will get:

  • Access to this course for 5 weeks



Upgrade this course and you will get:

  • Access to this course for as long as it’s on FutureLearn
  • A print and digital Certificate of Achievement once you’re eligible


$279.99 for one year

Buy Unlimited and you will get:

  • Access to this course, and hundreds of other FutureLearn short courses and tests for a year
  • A printable digital Certificate of Achievement on all short courses once you’re eligible
  • The freedom to keep access to any course you've achieved a digital Certificate of Achievement on, for as long as the course exists on FutureLearn
  • The flexibility to complete your choice of short courses in your own time within the year

Find out more about upgrades or Unlimited.

Get a taste of this course

Find out what this course is like by previewing some of the course steps before you join: