Engaging in history as a hobby – any area, be it topical or geographic – usually requires plowing through books. This is often an enjoyable and rewarding task, but it can also be a real pain in the backside if the author isn’t particularly good at researching and/or writing.
So what else is out there for the history buff that wants to move beyond the book? For one, there are any number of podcasts out there that can be listened to just about anywhere. They’re convenient, portable, and often offer a certain degree of community involvement that can make listening a social experience. The downside to podcasting is that in most cases there’s little in the way of outside editing or vetting that goes on before the shows are published. I’ll be the first to admit that some episodes of British History 101 are better than others; if I had a production staff and studio, a lot more polishing could be done. The relatively amateur status of podcasting thus becomes an advantage and a disadvantage to the listener. The biggest advantage? Most of them – the ones with their heads in the right place, anyway – are free.
There is also a number of magazines that you can find at your local bookstore or by subscribing online; the one that comes to mind immediately is BBC History. I’m not a regular reader but I enjoy it when I do pick it up. One problem of the magazine is that it’s expensive – I think something like $9 per issue here in the US (which is hard to justify, considering you can still find paperback books for $7 or $8). I’ve also noticed quite a few other history magazines but haven’t spent much time going through them to see which ones are worth your time and which ones aren’t – something tells me that with such a large selection, there are bound to be a few lemons in there somewhere.
TV…well, the History Channel (sorry – they’ve gone all modern and dropped the “the”) used to be something worth your time. But with some of their latest programming including Swamp People and Ice Road Truckers, I’m not so sure anymore. Given a limited number of hours to watch TV, I’d wait for something interesting to play on PBS (Ken Burns, anyone?).
If you want to get into more detailed explorations (and I do mean more detailed – sometimes mindnumbingly so), check out your local academic library (if there’s a university or college near you that will allow access to non-students). What you’ll find there is often quite different from what you’ll find at a commercial (or even small-town) bookstore; academic authors rarely make it onto the shelves of Barnes and Noble or Borders, for a variety of reasons. Of special interest can also be the journals which those libraries either hold or offer online access to; these are very, very narrow channels into certain areas of history, but can offer a much clearer picture of a given situation, person, or timeframe than a book can. Two that I would recommend for British History 101 listeners are the Journal of British Studies and the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History. You have to be picky with these, too, as some of the authors are really only writing for an audience of maybe 10-20 fellow experts in the field, which means that not every article is going to be a superstar.
Of course there’s always the Internet (which is crucial for a person like me trying to reach an audience). There are a number of websites out there that you can access for free (some have limited for-pay content) that have a ton of interesting information and sources to peruse. A quick three that I would recommend include the BBC’s British history section (not the magazine), which is good light reading divided into time periods with other sections devoted to bigger events and people. There’s also Britannia History, which looks like a good resource on specific subjects but may lean more towards the subjective than otherwise. Finally you can check out British History Online, which is a database of all sorts of primary source goodies – if you want to take a look at some firsthand materials, this is the place to do it if you can’t travel.
If you want to dive into British history, don’t think you’re constrained to shelling out a ton of money for books or hoping your local library has something published within the last 30 years. There are plenty of other avenues of learning available (many of them free), and this is an excellent way for folks with an interest in history, no matter how serious, to get involved.