Good books, bad books, and how to tell the difference


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Design and original content Copyright 2005 by Chris Laning.

E-mail: Chris Laning


Local library, inter-library loan, purchase used copies via the internet's many used-book sites. Books are usually a better option than the Internet, especially for specialized research. Much good information isn't on the Internet, and there are at least as many bad internet sources as good ones in many fields.

Go to the BIGGEST library you can find where you can get borrowing privileges.

If you have a choice between reading one book twice and reading two books, read two, because they will have different points of view.


1. Ask knowledgeable people to recommend some.

2. Get one that you know is good and look in the bibliography for others that sound interesting.

3. Go to Amazon or other book sites on the internet and read the book reviews.

4. Don’t forget to look outside your immediate field (i.e. if you're researching costume, look also at paintings).


1. Who is the author and what are her or his credentials (university, amateur, what else have they published)?

2. How recent is the book? (Rule of thumb: be skeptical of interpretations more than ten, sometimes even five, years old.)

3. How good is its bibliography? (The longer, more primary sources, and more up-to-date the better)

4. Does the author have an axe to grind? (I.e. the Armenian author of a book on oriental rugs, who is sure the art of weaving rugs originated in Armenia...)

5. Expertise. Does the author make comparisons with other sources? Do the words "always" and "never" appear frequently? Hope for phrases like "current research suggests" or "we don't yet know."

“Every field has its real experts and its three-book experts. The difference is that the real experts ask questions, and the three-book experts make definitive statements. “ (Mike Morell)

6. Are there sources? Is there enough information (bibliography, footnotes, et cetera) so you could check them yourself, to see how they have been interpreted or misinterpreted?

7. How close to the originals are the illustrations? Are they modern drawings, photos of paintings, or photos of actual artifacts? Have they been redrawn from someone else's drawings? What did they leave out, interpret or embellish? Can you compare the original artifact to the drawing? Do photos of objects give the dimensions? Where is the original artifact now?


1. Taking notes. The good old-fashioned file cards (just like you learned to do for term papers), or a pencil and notebook, are low-tech and easily portable. Consider also sketches. The more you write and draw, the more you see and remember. Back up your notes in computer files so there is more than one copy. Losing notes is no fun.

2. Photocopying. Copyright law says more or less that if it was published before 1925, it’s probably in the public domain. If it’s still under copyright, “Fair Use” generally condones copying a few pages (less than 1000 words) once, for your own personal research. When in doubt, ask, and always ask first, not afterward. (Most people will say yes.)

3. When to borrow, when to buy. Depends on your budget, your library access and how often you use something. Sources for inexpensive used books include Faire or SCA merchants and the WWW used-book markets (many sites, lots of good ones).

4. Don’t forget to share. Share your sources and the results of your research with your fellow guild or group members. Be friendly and accessible to those who know less than you do. Be open and listen to those who may know something you don’t. Encourage and help each other with a free hand. Never stop learning.


Some books are excellent for certain types of research and useless for others. Take the purpose of a book into account as you evaluate it as a source for your own research.


Story in detail of the life of one person — and may also have useful information on relatives and contemporaries.

“Big History”

Overviews of events and thought, such as John Hale’s The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance orThe Oxford Illustrated History of Tudor and Stuart Britain. Often a lot of political history: dates, famous people, wars, government, major social trends.

Daily Life & social history.

Overviews of the life of “ordinary” people: birth, marriage, and death; houses, food, clothing, economics, social classes, property, trade, religion, customs.

“Little History.”

Books in depth about a particular geographic area or subject, such as painting, music, the aristocracy, the Globe Theatre, tournaments, the Puritans, London, jewelry, etc.

Material Culture.

“Big Fat Books of Things.” Pictures and descriptions of surviving period artifacts. As close as most of us ever get to a primary source for making similar objects ourselves. Catalogs of museum exhibitions (especially in paperback a few years afterward, often at $30 or less), private collections, or publication plus analysis like Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d.

Essay Books.

Collections of essays on various aspects of a subject, often with misleadingly general titles like Tudor and Stuart Women Writers. Excellent if one of their topics is something you want to explore in depth. Often these are the result of a symposium of some sort. Look at the table of contents first.

Reference Books.

Indispensable for checking facts and figures. Dictionaries, “who was who” books, maps, and general guides such as the Longman Companion to the Tudor Age, which lists law courts, genealogies, the Privy Council, major rebellions and other events with brief commentary.Archaeology.Reports, popular or scientific, of what’s been found in an excavation and what the archeologists think it means. Excellent for details of material culture, and it’s amazing how much can be deduced about other aspects of daily life as well. May be dry and full of graphs and regression coefficients or readable and full of pictures — look first.

Primary documents.

Editions that have either facsimile pages or translations (of various flavors) of actual documents written by people of the era you are studying. May be anywhere from boring to riveting, depending on what you’re looking for and the personality of the writer.


Specific instructions on how to do or make something. Only as good as the sources they draw from and the expertise of their authors; often no such book exists, but if it does and if it’s a good one, it’s a tremendous asset.


Fiction cannot be used as a basis for research. Fiction, like theatre, feels free to revise reality for the sake of a good story. And since no past era can be completely documented, authors of fiction make stuff up. What fiction is good for (aside from pure entertainment) is to convey flavor, personality, and to provide possible facts that can be checked elsewhere.