Glossary of Historical Terms

Why the Past Is Different From History

Heracles (Hercules) Papyrus
Heracles (Hercules) Papyrus. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

All eras of history have their own terms and words unique to them; if you’re lucky, they’ll even be in a language you speak. But the act of studying history has a range of terms too, and this page will explain the historiographical terms used both throughout the site, and the books students commonly need. Read these tips for writing a history paper.

History Terms From A to Z

  • Archive: A collection of documents and records. Archives can be huge and take years to adequately master (or, in the case of some museums, even longer), and they can just be small but deliberate groupings of material. They are the homes of the previous generation of historians but are increasingly going online. ​
  • Autobiography: An individual's account of their life. The auto part means that individual has had major input, if not writing it themselves, but this doesn’t mean the work will be historically accurate. The historian will have to judge that, but it does mean it’s the past as the individual wishes it to be remembered.
  • Bibliography: A list of works, including books, journals, and essays, on a particular subject. Most serious historical works have a bibliography of what was used to create it, and most students and readers are encouraged to use it as a basis for exploration.
  • Biography: An account of an individual's life, written by another person. This might be a historian, it might be a hack selling tawdry rumors and needs to be assessed just as carefully as an autobiography.
  • Book Review: A critical examination of a text, usually including a summary of the work and opposing views. Journalistic book reviews will tend to focus on whether the book is good, academic book reviews will tend to place the book in the context of the field (and whether it’s good.)
  • Context: The background and specific circumstances of a subject, such as an author's lifestyle, or the weather during a car crash. Context is absolutely everything when it comes to analyzing a document, or setting the scene for your essay.
  • Discipline: The study, or practice, of a subject using a specific set of methods, terms, and approaches. History is a discipline, as is Archaeology, Chemistry or Biology.
  • Encyclopedia: A written reference work, composed of informative articles arranged alphabetically. These can either focus on a particular subject or, in the case of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, on everything. The more an encyclopedia covers, the less depth it tends to have, so volumes specific to your target subject are the goal.
  • History: Either the study of the past or the product of our attempts to understand the past. See ‘the Past’ below for the full explanation.
  • Historian: An individual who studies the past.
  • Historiography: Either the methods and principles used in the study of history or the written result.
  • Interdisciplinary: The study, or practice, of a subject which applies the methods and approaches of several disciplines. For instance, while History, Literature, and Archaeology are separate disciplines, they can be combined.
  • Journal: A periodical which normally deals with a specific issue, for instance, National Geographic. By periodical, we mean a sort of magazine.
  • Past, The: Events which happened previously in time. It might sound strange to have ‘history’ and ‘the past’ meaning different things, but the distinction is important when you remember that all our attempts to narrate and explain earlier events are affected by our own biases and difficulties of time and transmission. What historians have done is used ‘The Past’ as a base point: this is what happened, this is what most people think of as history. Historians then consider ‘history’ as the product of our attempts to recreate the past.
  • Primary Sources: Material from, or directly related to, the past. In History, primary sources are usually letters, records or other documents created during the period that is being studied, such as diaries, legal notices or accounts. However, primary sources can include photographs, jewelry, and other items.
  • Reference Work: A text, usually in the form of a dictionary or encyclopedia which contains facts and information, but not normally discussions.
  • Secondary Sources: Material created by somebody removed from the event being studied - who was either not at the event, or was working later. For instance, all history textbooks are secondary sources.