When I say "Ask a Historian", I mean just that. I, as a historian, will try to answer any questions about history that you may have, if it's on a topic I know anything about or can find out something about. If I can't answer it, then chances are good that one or more of the many other very knowledgeable people in this community will be able to give you a response.
What sort of questions are we talking about here? Well, my own expertise is pre-modern (say, pre-1750) European political, social, and cultural history. I will strive to answer questions posed here that fall within that (rather broad) range. If your question deals with another subject, time, or place, you can certainly ask it anyway - I might not weigh in personally, but experience has shown that people here are willing to discuss just about any place and any time period, often very informatively. I frequently learn things from the posts here that I didn't know before.
While debate over tricky questions is expected and encouraged, I do expect people to remain civil with one another. Also, I encourage members to back up their claims with references whenever possible. Questions of an entirely speculative nature (i.e. "What would have happened if Hitler had won WWII?") are discouraged. We are not in the business of doing homework, writing term papers, or compiling family genealogies.
A few points to consider before you post a question, so that you are more likely to get a helpful response:
- Tell us everything that might be relevant (within reason, of course). If you read about a particular person or incident but can't remember the specifics, it still might be helpful for us to know, for instance, the context in which you learned about it (e.g. "I know it was in a book on Renaissance Italy.") Sometimes the oddest detail can trigger someone's memory and help solve the problem. - Let us know what you already know about the subject. This can be as simple as giving us an idea of the level of study you're at (i.e. are you taking a high school course that deals with this question, or are you a graduate student who's working on their thesis? Is it something you're researching for a piece of fiction writing, or just out of personal interest?) It should cut down on re-hashing things you may already know. - Relatedly, it helps to show us if you've already done some research of your own. For instance, people will tend to respond much more favourably if you preface your question by saying something like "I understand this and this, but I'm confused about that," or if you mention "I was reading such and such a book, and I found this statement that I wanted to know more about." It demonstrates that you're not looking to have other people do all your work for you, which is generally frowned upon here. - It's never a good idea to tell us that you're asking something because you don't have the time or inclination to research it yourself for a school assignment. This will almost inevitably result in people giving you stern lectures about doing your own work, and not in you getting the answers you're looking for. - Recognize that anyone can make a mistake, or be misinformed about a subject. None of us are absolute infallible authorities, so don't take anyone's answer as The Absolute Truth. (Note: if you are in fact the world's recognized authority on a given subject, and have published many books on it, etc., please do let us know!) - Be polite. Even if you need an answer in a hurry, or your question provokes responses you weren't looking for, you should still make the effort to be polite. Taking the time to thank someone who has helped you is always appreciated.
Guidelines for answering questions:
- Try to provide references whenever possible. It's not necessary to give full bibliographic citations, but titles of books, names of scholars who've written about the topic, and/or links to relevant websites are a good idea. If that's not possible, you might at least include a mention of how you learned about a particular subject (say, from a class you took). - Remember that none of us are absolute authorities (see above if you are ;) and be prepared to accept that people may disagree with your answer. Disagreement is not necessarily a bad thing, and can lead to productive discussion if the participants are open-minded and reasonable about it. - Recognize that some of the people who will pose questions here are just starting out in their studies, or haven't taken a history class since high school, and may not have a great deal of knowledge about subjects you consider commonplace. It's rarely helpful to say "Just Google it, you'll find lots of stuff." The problem may be that they've found too much information and need help sorting out what is reliable from what isn't, rather than that they haven't tried at all. - As above, be polite. Even if the question seems like an easy one to you, it's no reason to talk down to the person who asked it in the first place. Try to stick to the level of discourse you'd expect in a university seminar when disagreements arise. And remember, you're not obligated to respond to anything you find offensive. This includes questions from people who appear to be trying to get someone else to do their homework for them. If you feel you must respond somehow, you can refer them to these guidelines rather than berating them yourself. In some cases, it may simply be a misunderstanding, if they are new to the community and don't know how things tend to work around here.
All that said, welcome to the community! I hope you find it interesting and a useful sounding board for your questions about history.
My own credentials (for those who are interested) are as follows: B.A. (History), McGill University, 2000; M.A. (History), Concordia University, 2002 (and hopefully eventually Ph.D., 20??). My personal journal is curtana, if you need to contact me, or are just interested to know more about me.