Telling the difference between good history books and bad history books can sometimes be tough. However, it doesn’t have to be impossible.

A stack of history books I own.
How to tell a reliable history book from an unreliable one. A stack of some of my history books.

History is a fairly popular genre. As a result, many people will try to pass off bad history books as reputable. However, figuring out how to tell the difference can be a challenge. Readers need to know how to distinguish these, especially in our current world.

Check The Author’s Credentials

An old book on a table with glasses on top of it
A pair of glasses on top of a book
Photo from Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash

Any academic writer should be an expert in the field of his writing. For this reason, before reading a scholarly work, it is important to make sure the writer is legitimate. This ensures that the book is not intentionally, or unintentionally, misleading. It also ensures that the information is accurate.

Great examples of what I am talking about are books written by political or media figures. For instance, I have a book given to me years ago, written by former Fox television host Bill O’Reilly about the American Revolution. This is a classic example of someone without credentials pretending to know what he’s talking about. He is not a historian and as a result, his writing is not reliable. This is a big reason why I have never read the book.

The credentials for a reliable author can vary wildly. What is important is that the person knows the topic they are speaking about. You shouldn’t trust a poet to fix a bridge, and the same goes for historical texts. If you are reading a book about France in World War II, you shouldn’t trust a writer with no knowledge in that area.

Check For Any Potential Egregious Bias

Eisenhower At War, a blue cover with 5 stars in a circle in the center
Eisenhower At War By David Eisenhower

Bias is the mortal enemy of writers. It is unavoidable, but it is essential to try to minimize it as much as possible. In many history book authors, do not even attempt to do so. Another similar thing to look out for is whether the author has a reason to write in a particular viewpoint.

For example, another book I own is Eisenhower At War. It is a biography of Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in World War II. This generally would not be a problem. In this instance, however, it’s major flaw is that it was written by Eisenhower’s grandson. He may have had some sources more professional historians didn’t, but he has every reason to paint his family favorably.

Bias is not something that automatically makes a book unreliable. However, it is something that must be taken into account when reading. You should always be aware of what narrative an author is trying to tell. Biased sources also often leave out important facts that conflict with this narrative.

Check The History Book’s Sources

A couple pages of sources in Peter Wilson's Thirty Years War: Europe's Tragedy
A couple pages of sources in Peter Wilson’s Thirty Years War: Europe‘s Tragedy

In academia, sources are at the core of credibility. History is no different. Primary and secondary sources allow for the work to be fact-checked; it ensures that it was not simply made up. It also allows for other historians to make sure a source is not being misrepresented.

In most scholarly work, you want to have a good number of primary sources. This ensures that it is is not simply a paraphrase someone else’s work. It indicates that the author did their own research. This may vary from archaeology for prehistoric and ancient topics to archives for modern ones.

Secondary sourcing is still necessary, though. Authors using other author’s works shows that they are building off the work of others. This adds legitimacy by demonstrating that the book is in line with existing scholarship on the subject. Any scholarly book should contain a good mix of both primary and secondary sources. Primary sources should be more prevalent, however.

Reliable work generally includes a fairly sizable amount of sources, and unreliable books don’t. The unreliable O’Reilly book only contains 3 pages of sources for roughly 300 pages of writing. This is also only mostly generalities like saying he visited Mt. Vernon. In contrast, reliable history books contain many sources and thus hold more credibility in their facts and judgments than less well-sourced books. For instance, Peter Wilson’s Thirty Years War contains about 70 pages of meticulous citations and notes for 851 pages in the body of the book. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s seminal work, Team of Rivals, is even more pronounced at 121 pages of citations compared to 754 pages in the body.

Snake oil salesmen take advantage of people’s naïveté and ignorance. It is no exception when it comes to history books. It is always important to research prior to buying any academic book – it’s the only way to prevent misinformation.