Editor’s note: The article that follows, written by Karen McDonnell, is the winner of our recent competition for our final year students to write a short piece on the history topic that meant the most to them in the course of their degree. Karen was a BA Connect with Writing (History and Classics) student who also blogs at Read Write Here.
I can remember my first history lesson at primary school: the ‘why didn’t I know this before?’ feeling. It’s never left me, a curiosity about the past; the need to picture it. During secondary school, I had my special seat at the local library. I would pore over books about the World Wars. I stared at medieval scenes, imagining lives beyond the illustrations.
When my teacher concentrated on Lenin, I was reading about Trotsky. Both featured in the Inter Cert exam. Imagine the perplexity of the person correcting papers from my school: answer after answer about Lenin, then this kid writing about Trotsky. I lingered over his assassination, noting the murder weapon (an ice-pick), including the depth that it penetrated Trotsky’s skull.
Reader, I was a ghoulish child.
The excitement created by wandering down historical lanes and cul-de-sacs never left me. As a student of History at NUIG, what I have loved most – choice of modules aside – is having access to so many primary and secondary sources. I am a JSTOR addict. Don’t get me started on 17th and 18th Century Collections Online. I cherish old books and documents for their smudged print-and- papery selves; not solely as academic references.
A tiny detail in a primary source can move me, or clarify an academic position. I will never fully recall the military details of The Somme, but give me a journal written by a soldier and I’m hooked. Importantly though, I now recognise the co-dependency of primary sources and existing scholarship; how that functions in the academic world. Learning about the battle improves the enjoyment of the soldier’s journal.
Now, back to my favourite Menshevik. Did you know that Trotsky kept rabbits? Fact. Stalin didn’t give a hoot about those rabbits. Neither, I suspect, does Academia. But Trotsky did, obviously.
Although I enjoy rabbit-hunting in the Fields of Primary Sources, I have some advice for the student of History: Enjoy the wonderful side-roads the sources send you down, but pick and choose what you find there.
When writing academic essays – Step. Away. From. The. Bunnies.
– Karen McDonnell