Online course

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.

Learning from the Past: A Guide for the Curious Researcher

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.

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Skip to 0 minutes and 5 secondsPopulism. 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 secondsWe'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 secondsAnd 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.

What topics will you cover?

Week 1 - Language and History

  • Why does the past matter today?

  • History as language – and how to crack the code….

  • Reading critically

Week 2 - Images and Artefacts

  • Photographs: A Window on the Past?

  • Maps and Historical Images as Sources

  • Finding Sources in Library Catalogues and Archives

Week 3 - Thinking Outside the Box…

  • The impact of the present on understanding the past

  • Sound Collections and Oral History

  • Digital Sources & the Archived Web

  • Plan your own research project

When would you like to start?

  • Date to be announced

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?

Ian Cooke

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

Dean Blackburn

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

Maiken Umbach

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.

Daniel O'Neill

I am a tutor and researcher based at the University of Nottingham. I specialise in modern British history and have specific interests in the history of public health, smoking and consumer culture.

Who developed the course?

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.

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

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.

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