An official history is a work of history which is sponsored, authorised, or endorsed by its subject. The term is most commonly used for histories which are produced at a government's behest. However, the term may also encompass, for example, company histories, i.e. histories of commercial companies which the company itself has commissioned. An official biography (one written with the permission, cooperation, and perhaps participation of its subject or its subject's heirs) is often known as an authorized biography.
Official histories frequently have the advantage that the author or authors have been given access to archives, interview subjects and other primary sources which would be closed or inaccessible to independent historians. However, because of the necessarily close relationship between author and subject, such works may be (or be perceived to be) partisan in tone, and to lack historical objectivity. In fact, the extent to which official histories are partisan varies considerably: some are indeed little more than exercises in public relations and promotion, whereas in other cases the authors will have retained sufficient independence to be able to express negative as well as positive judgements about their subjects.
Historical official histories
There is a long tradition of histories being written or published under official patronage: they include, for example, the Anglica Historia (drafted by 1513 and published in 1534), a history of England written by Polydore Vergil at the request of King Henry VII; and William Camden's Annales Rerum Gestarum Angliae et Hiberniae Regnate Elizabetha (1615-1627), a history of the reign of Elizabeth I of England. In early modern Europe, certain royal courts appointed official historians: these included the Rikshistoriograf in Sweden from 1618, the Historiographer Royal in England from 1660, and the Historiographer Royal in Scotland from 1681. The Scottish post is still in existence.
Each book in the Twenty-Four Histories records the official history of a Chinese dynasty. Sixteen of the histories were written between the 7th and 15th centuries. The first is Records of the Grand Historian, authored by Sima Qian in the Han Dynasty, and the last is History of Ming in 1735. The official histories were compiled since the Tang Dynasty by a government office for historiography. They were revised and expanded over the course of a dynasty, up until the point that a final edition is published by the succeeding dynasty.
Modern official histories
Modern governments have commissioned official histories for a range of purposes. These include promoting the government's achievements, reflecting on past practices, commemorating events and providing an authoritative record for other historians to draw from. Military history is a particularly common topic for official histories to cover. Examples of official military histories include the Australian series Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 and Australia in the War of 1939–1945 and the British series History of the Great War and History of the Second World War.
- MacIntyre, Stuart (2001). "Official history". In Graeme Davison, John Hirst and Stuart Macintyre. The Oxford Companion to Australian History (Oxford Reference Online ed.). Oxford University Press.
- Hartman, Charles; DeBlasi, Anythony (2012). The Oxford History of Historical Writing: Volume 2: 400-1400. Oxford University Press. p. 18. ISBN 978-0-19-923642-8.
- Jeffrey Grey, ed. (2003). The last word?: essays on official history in the United States and British Commonwealth. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 0-313-31083-1.
- Robin Higham, ed. (1970). Official Histories. Essays and bibliographies from around the world. Manhattan, Kansas: Kansas State University Library.