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Everyday People: Writing Nineteenth-Century British and American Lives (HI2J9)


The vast majority of people living in the past did not leave extensive archival papers, memoirs, or collections of letters, but instead appear in the historical record only fleetingly, and often without their consent. In recent years, the archival fragments of peoples’ lives have been made increasingly available due to the growing genealogy industry, which has led to the mass digitisation of primary source databases including census rolls, newspapers, and medical and immigration records. This module asks: what can, and should, historians do with these readily available fragments of past lives? How do we tell their stories?

This module explores how historians can study the lives of people in the past using these online records, with particular focus on enslaved people, people of colour, women, and working class people living in nineteenth century Britain and the United States. It emphasises the ethical questions and methodological challenges posed by our access to these sources: just because they are available at the click of a button does not mean that we know the whole story, nor that that the people detailed on our screens would want us to tell it.

This module takes as a founding principle that all people, regardless of status, lived lives worthy of historical study on their own terms, telling their own story, rather than as “case studies” or fragmentary evidence in larger social histories. The module encourages students to make use of cutting edge methodologies developed by Black feminist scholars, such as “critical fabulation” (Saidiya Hartman) and “reading along the bias grain” (Marisa Fuentes), to explore the archival evidence left by people in the nineteenth century US and Britain available through digitised records. Students will also engage with the ethical issues involved in the use of these records, as many people only appear in the digital archive without their consent, or as victims or (alleged) perpetrators of crimes. The module will guide students through a range of different types of digital sources, and students will be empowered to choose their own evidence to analyse and elucidate.

The module will be taught in 2-hour seminars.



Tempie Herndon Durham, age 103, a formerly enslaved woman photographed in the 1930s. Library of Congress

Module convenor: Dr Lydia Plath

General Reading 

Talis Aspire Reading List


Student Reviews

  • "[I was] given the chance to have a level of more individual research, so I felt more emboldened and enthralled by the thought of studying the subjects at hand."
  • "Incredibly thought provoking."
  • "Getting the freedom to discover the sources ourselves is refreshing and great"
  • "I thoroughly enjoyed this module, and would take it again."

Learning outcomes

  • Demonstrate a detailed knowledge of how historians can study the lives of people in the past, and the methodological and ethical challenges of doing so.
  • Communicate ideas and findings about people in the past, adapting to a range of situations, audiences and degrees of complexity.
  • Generate ideas through the analysis of a body of online primary source material.
  • Analyse and evaluate the contributions made by existing interdisciplinary scholarship.
  • Act with limited supervision and direction within defined guidelines, accepting responsibility for achieving deadlines.


  • Seminar contribution (10%)
  • 1500 word essay (30%)
  • 3000 word essay or equivalent (60%)