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Does the discipline of history have any convention in determining the difference between "current events" and "history"? How do professional historians determine when an event has passed from politics and into history? Is this a matter that historians approach on a case by case basis, or do different writers have different opinions?

For example, a popular rule of thumb sets the cut off at 10 years - everything before is history and everything since current events. What is the historian's version of this rule, if in fact any exists?

A related question on the distinction between History and Politics - moved out of comments in order to preserve the link.

  • Probably the only convention would be it's history when an historian writes a book about it. In other words, it's a matter of personal opinions. +1 because I think it's a relevant question, but I fear it'll be closed for that reason. Also I hope you don't mind, but I took the liberty of editing a bit. – Semaphore Feb 2 '15 at 15:34
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    I didn't mean to hijack anything - I tried to keep the question the same, just a bit more fleshed out for H.SE's standards. If you dislike the changes though please feel free to use the rollback option. – Semaphore Feb 2 '15 at 15:40
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    Related – Mark C. Wallace Feb 2 '15 at 17:58
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    Got a link for that "popular rule of thumb"? Its news to me. – T.E.D. Feb 3 '15 at 19:19
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    @Rohit you (seem to) have very definite ideas about what you are looking for in an answer (based on your comments here) - Answering your own question is allowed. :c) – CGCampbell Feb 5 '15 at 15:51
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Things become history when historicised by historians. For what is historicisation and who is a historian see another answer at What are some indicators that distinguish pseudo-history from actual history?

The largest element of this is access to the documentary records of the past. Some documentary records are held orally, and these become accessible when people start to memorialise their own past. The largest source for the documentary record of the past is archives. The largest archives tend to be state archives. State archives make documents accessible after 20 years, or 30 years, or 50 years or never. (For example: https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/about/20-year-rule.htm)

Some archives become open to historians much sooner. Failed states tend to be unable to protect their archival heritage, and the states that come later tend to make these open. Occasionally individuals release large slabs of state documents. Private organisations may release archival material earlier, or later. Or a failed organisation may suddenly release recent information.

Due to the role of the state in supervening people's lives, and as a direct participant in social action, state archives tend to dictate the ebb and flow of historicity. So "enough time to research a journal article or book" after an archival opening is a good guess. Say 20-25 years.


Things that are historical can still be current events. History is often used in contemporary politics for effect.

  • I have concerns about this answer on two points. 1-It still doesn't tell whether there are any conventions or not. 2- "Historicised by historians" --is there a definite recognition of a historian, or his act of historicising. If these points are addressed, the answer would be more definite, and, well, better – Rohit Feb 3 '15 at 7:05
  • @Rohit I don't think you're going to get a more definite answer than this one (mostly because a truly definite answer just doesn't exist). Here's another point to consider. When we distinguish "ancient" history from the even older prehistoric, the place where we draw the line between the two is where the written record begins. If the beginning of the written record defines where history begins, then it seems only natural to me that the end of the record would define where history stops. But again, this is only for if you really want to tie yourself in knots with a rigid definition. – David H Feb 6 '15 at 13:13
  • @DavidH btw, i mentioned 2 articulate points addition, which consist of binary, yes or no answers, isn't it??? – Rohit Feb 8 '15 at 10:43
  • There are more historical sources than document archives. – Aaron Brick May 26 '18 at 3:57
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The flippant answer is, "History is stuff that happened before I was born. "

The implications of this are:

  • Things that are "history" to me, like World War 2, are not to folks older than I who were around then living through it.
  • As time goes by, a "recent event" becomes less and less that, and more and more "history".
  • Once the last person who has first-hand knowledge of an event dies, it becomes 100% history.
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    @ T.E.D Flippant it is – Rohit Feb 5 '15 at 9:47
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    And cool too just that, it is not an answer – Rohit Feb 5 '15 at 9:48

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