As someone who works in IT myself, I know it's hard to see the newbie's perspective; I thought some feedback about my experience would help. You can see my post here.

As I said, my expertise is in IT, I'm generally an advanced user; also I've used SE sites before (for IT), though I posted only a few times. This was my experience here:

  1. Read rules, guidelines
  2. Compose and post to History SE
  3. Discuss rules, edit post
  4. Find post put on hold anyway
  5. Post to Meta, as instructed
  6. Requires signup; go through signup process
  7. Check my email, click link
  8. Rejected with error: "That email address is already in use". Seems highly unlikely, no instructions on how to proceed
  9. Redo signup with different email address
  10. Error: Email address does not match your profile, edit your profile
  11. Go to profile, find edit button (non-obvious; it's in a different section than the email address)
  12. Signup again, check email again, click link, works this time
  13. Post question to Meta
  14. EDIT: Question rejected at Meta; I'm told I got "bad advice" so steps 5-13 were a waste of my time and effort. I'm recommended to make yet another post asking that the original main site question be re-opened. I'm also offered links to more reading on rules As you can imagine, this is a frustrating, time-consuming experience and I'm stopping here. (Generally, everyone is polite and considerate, which I do appreciate; thank you!)

At this point, nobody has talked about history yet; it's been all a time sink and frustration. I suspect you lose a few users along the way there. In fact, the only reason I completed the process was to post this feedback. In particular:

  • Far too much focus is on rules; it reminds me of Wikipedia (not a good thing). I just want to talk about history, not become an expert in SE.
  • The rules are unclear. I read the 'manual' (something most users don't do) and somehow still didn't understand[1].
  • Prohibitting asking for book recommendations in a history forum would seem to eliminate much value for no apparent gain. My question was pretty specific and I searched for answers before posting.

[1] Help says the site "is not about ... Asking for reference material". I suppose that could apply to my question, but it's ambiguous. 'Reference material' could mean primary sources, specific citations (e.g., 'where is a cite for Napoleon's height'?), reference books (e.g., 'Biographical dictionary of American History'), or several other things. I wouldn't think a narrative about Chinese history is considered "reference" and I expect that's exactly what a history forum would discuss. If it's confusing to me, I expect others will be equally confused. Also, I'm not sure why my question is appropriate on Meta. Again, look how much time is spent reading, puzzling over, and discussing rules!

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    Most of your steps seem related to signing up. I didn't think that was necessary. Couldn't you use your normal SE account? As for your footnote: I expect the site is about discussing history itself, rather than books about history. Though I kind of see your point, I thought it natural to think "a narrative about X history" counts as reference material.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 18:20
  • Newbies don't have accounts. (My account was tied to a former employer.) Meta requires an account, or so it told me.
    – user5231
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 23:09
  • Excellent input and i thank you for sharing. We continue to debate how we should handle references. Can you suggest a change to the FAQ that would improve the situation?
    – MCW Mod
    Commented Jul 10, 2014 at 9:27
  • Hm, you got some bad advice about posting your main site question on Meta (#5). Normally, a new user would stop at #4 with either a closed question or a correct answer.
    – yannis
    Commented Jul 10, 2014 at 10:15
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    Yannis - Thanks again. Note that your response (on my other post and here) is more reading, another post, and more rules. My main point is that more steps and rules are not a solution. SE needs to find another way, IMHO.
    – user5231
    Commented Jul 10, 2014 at 18:45
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    Mark: It simply could say "Requests for recommendations on books and reference materials. For example, 'can someone recommend a history of the Ming dynasty'." You might want to add to the list citations or whatever else is banned -- I don't know the rule well enough myself to say. Thanks and good luck.
    – user5231
    Commented Jul 10, 2014 at 18:48
  • Mark: This may clarify: "Reference material" is something I expect to find at a library's reference desk, or in the reference section of the library.
    – user5231
    Commented Jul 10, 2014 at 19:05
  • How about a newletter (does History have one?) that might list ways to research history, or could provide insight on referencing some of the more popular historical topics (romans, chinese, whatever)
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Jul 13, 2014 at 2:48
  • You are certainly not the only one with these frustrations. Commented Jan 24, 2015 at 8:57

3 Answers 3


Pretty much any question along the lines of "Could you name me some good books on topic_x?". Are considered off-topic by users here, and are pretty much guaranteed to be put on hold.

If you didn't find the FAQ entry clear on this, perhaps you could suggest a rewording that would have made it clearer to you?

It is kind of sad that these questions are off-topic on the main site, but they just do not fit the StackExchange format at all. All answers are going to be subjective (guaranteeing lots of arguments in comments and posts that go nowhere), and no answer can ever be complete because there are millions of books, and new ones are always coming out. Given that there are liable to be good books mentioned in multiple answers, how can there ever be a single "right" answer for you to accept? Our tools just do not work for that kind of question.

What makes a good message board post does not always make a good StackExchange question.

If you "just want to talk about history" without getting hung up on annoying rules about fitting "questions" into the SE format, that's why we have chat rooms. You could try chatting in The Time Machine.

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    I didn't ask for "some good books" but for the "leading scholarly histories". It might be somewhat subjective, but probably there are only a few answers at most.
    – user5231
    Commented Jul 10, 2014 at 18:41
  • For example: If someone asked for "the leading newspapers in the United States", the answers would be the NY Times, Wall St Journal, and maybe USA Today and the Washington Post. Those may not be my favorite newspapers, but they are the leaders.
    – user5231
    Commented Jul 10, 2014 at 19:14
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    "Pretty much any question along the lines of "Could you name me some good books on topic_x?". Are considered off-topic by users here" -- That is something to post prominently, at least in the Help page and hopefully someplace people can't over look it.
    – user5231
    Commented Jul 10, 2014 at 19:15
  • The arguments in this answer sound an awful lot like a "slippery slope" argument. I see no reason why questions like that would actually clash with the SE format. Commented Jan 24, 2015 at 8:58

Source recommendations are best answered by scholarly literature reviews and reviews in journals or by a specialist academic librarian. There are no definitive answers. Source recs are a poor match for se format.

  1. I can't say I can echo any of your experiences with respect to signing up for this site. I was on SO for quite a while, I went to this site, was prompted to use the same logon I use for SO, clicked OK a couple of times and done.
  2. On all of the SE sites the rules are ambiguous - just like most LAWS are ambiguous - it's the nature of the beast. There are always different ways to slice and dice and interpret rules/laws and some people will be more "liberal" and others more "conservative" about it. Sometimes you do feel bad that a question is closed - you can try editing it, restating it in a different way, etc - sometimes it works, sometimes not. We do have a user driven community here and you won't always see eye to eye with the community at large - again, it's the nature of the beast: Some people will inevitably "fall through the cracks" in any system of rules or laws that is community driven and seeks to regulate a large number of people.
  3. As for requests for references, @SamuelRussel, who (unlike most of us here...) is a trained "professional" historian and an astute member of the site, has given you a "professional's" answer and SE sites are indeed designed to be for "professionals". Also note that many questions closed because they constitute a "request for references" can be re-worded in a more acceptable way. And as @T.E.D. has hinted, if you're comfortable enough on the internet to be seriously engaged on SE sites, doing google/wikipedia/amazon searches etc should be a simple matter and you'll find plenty of references. I personally have found that using Amazon together with their user reviews is often an excellent resource for reference material. Most history books that are not "hard core" scholarly works will be found on there with plenty of user reviews for the good/popular ones - you can get the good the bad and the ugly from there. The good articles in Wikipedia also cite, and often link to, valuable source material.
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    Vector: To the degree the rules are unlcear, it's too easy to say 'well, rules are ambiguous'; some are more ambiguous than others and these need improving. The main point wasn't the rules, but to the time and complexity involved in using this SE; most answers miss the point. (I addressed Amazon, et. al. in my original post, the one that was closed.)
    – user5231
    Commented Jul 20, 2014 at 1:05
  • @china_study - time and complexity involved in using this SE : if you mean the IT aspects, I can't answer. If you mean the difficulty of posting a good question or answer, I agree that it is not always easy. History is very broad in scope and it's not easy to fine tune or source things well, but the discipline required will not hurt you, that's certain. Comments, closed questions and downvotes can hurt, but most of the time you'll learn something from them...
    – user2590
    Commented Jul 20, 2014 at 1:12

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