Indispensible Virtues of a Historian

In their classic work on research and writing titled The Modern Researcher (6th edition), Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff outline six indispensible qualities of a researcher (this list is found on pages 10-14):
  1. ACCURACY:

    No argument is needed to show why. If history is the story of past facts, and report, account or news story is a piece of recent history, those facts must be ascertained. Making certain implies being accurate – steadily, religiously. To this end, train yourself to remember names and dates and titles of books with precision. . . .

  2. LOVE OF ORDER:

    . . . Some people may overdo orderliness, but most of us underdo it, usually from groundless self-confidence. You may think you know what you are doing and have done. The fact is that as you get deeper into a subject you will know more and more about it and less and less about your own steps in mastering its details – hence the value of the system, which keeps order for you. . . .

  3. LOGIC:

    . . . The logic considere here is not the formal art of the philosopher but its ready and practical application to the perplexities of the search for sources. . . .

  4. HONESTY:

    Elsewhere, honesty may be the best policy, but in research it is the only one. Unless you put down with complete candor what you find to be true, you are nullifying the very result you aim at, which is the discovery of whatever is in the records you are consulting. You may have a hypothesis which is shattered by the new fact, but that is what hypotheses are for – to be destroyed and remolded closer to the reality. The troublesome fact may go against your purpose or prejudice, but nothing is healthier for the mind than to have either challenged. You are a searcher after truth, which should reconcile you to every discovery. Even if you are pledged to support a cause, you had better know beforehand all the evidence your side will have to face. For if one fact is there obstructing your path, you may be fairly sure others to the same effect will be turned up by your adversary. It is the nature of reality to be mixed, and the research scholar is the person on whom we rely to chart it. Accuracy about neutral details is of little worth compared to honesty about significant ones.

  5. SELF-AWARENESS:

    . . . You, the searcher, need it – first, to make sure that you are not unwittingly dishonest and, second, in order to lessen the influence of bias by making your standards of judgment plain to the reader. No one can be a perfectly clear reflector of what one finds. There is always some flaw in the glass, whose effect may be so uniform as not to disclose itself. The only protection against this source of constant error is for the writer to make all assumptions clear. . . .

  6. IMAGINATION:

    . . . The researcher must again and again imagine the kind of source needed before it can be found. To be sure, it may not exist; but if it does, its whereabouts must be presumed. By that ingenious balancing of wish and reason, which is true imagination, one makes one’s way from what one knows and possesses to what one must possess in order to know more. . . .

3 comments

  1. Steve, I was looking for your list of references on Romans but couldn’t find it. Did you have anything to say about Barnhouse’s commentary? I’m looking for opinions on it.

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