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Historical Research: More Guides and Reference

Research Guides

One of the best guides to historic research, especially when it comes to using electronic sources is Jenny L. Pessnell's The Information-Literate Historian (2007).

This work is an invaluable aid to history students at any level. Information regarding resources; both traditional and electronic are discussed at length.

It is available at Page Library in the General stacks, call number D 16.2 .P715 2007

One of the more popular handbooks for history students is William Kelleher Storey's Writing History: A Guide for Students.

First published in 1994, this book will serve novices and experts alike in formulating their presentation.

Located in the General stacks at Page Library, the call number for this book is: D 16 .S864 1998

One of the most durable handbooks for students of history has to be Jules R. Benjamin's A Student's Guide to History.

Now in its seventh edition, this is one of the most popular aids in assisting students locate, analyze and utilize the information they seek.

This edition can be located in the General stacks: D 16 .S864 1998

Of course there are many other choices; see what you can discover in the Page Library Online Catalog .

Lorenzo Greene

Lincoln University History Professor 1933 - 1972

Research Basics



Once you have defined your research topic, you should also make a research plan. The usual starting point is to identify the main currents of thought on your topic. Naturally, you need to know which historians have taken up this topic, what their main arguments are, and how our understanding of the subject has changed with shifts in the predominant methodologies and theoretical perspectives in the historical profession. In answering these questions, you will use secondary sources (the published work of scholars specializing in the topic); this is also termed the secondary literature on the subject. You will situate yourself in relation to the secondary literature on your topic. Does your analysis agree with previous scholarship, or are you offering a new interpretation?


If you are unfamiliar with your subject area, it will be very helpful to begin with a source that summarizes the main events or circumstances and also describes the historical context. This strategy also helps you verify that at least some research has already been done on your topic--it would be very difficult to cover all the background and conduct original research on your topic without any direction from other scholars, all in a single semester!

Examples of sources that provide broad overviews:

  • Encyclopedias and especially subject encyclopedias (e.g., the four-volume Encyclopedia of the Victorian Era)
  • Published bibliographies
  • Chronologies
  • Authoritative web sites
  • General histories (e.g. The Oxford History of the United States)

Research Basics, Part II


What are Secondary Sources?

Secondary sources are the published work of scholars specializing in the topic. Secondary sources include scholarly books, articles, and essays (both analyses by contemporary scholars as well as older analyses), surveys, criticism, comparative studies, reference sources, and works on theory and methodology; this is also termed the secondary literature. Eventually you will need to decide which interpretation makes the most sense to you and seems consistent with your primary sources, or if you wish to offer a new interpretation. 

When we talk about secondary sources, most of the time we are referring to published scholarship on a subject, rather than supplemental material (bibliographies, encyclopedias, handbooks, etc.). Secondary literature is published in both book form and as articles in periodicals, either in print or digital format. (Digital format includes both reproduction of print material online and original e-text.) This scholarship is analytical and interpretive. It may synthesize the work of other historians to present a totally new interpretation. More likely, it offers a new reading of previously analyzed sources or presents an analysis of previously unknown sources.

Hence, you use secondary sources to identify the main currents of thought on your topic. Which historians have taken up this topic and what were their main arguments? How has our understanding of the subject changed with shifts in the predominant methodologies and theoretical perspectives in the historical profession?

How Do I Find Secondary Sources?

To identify secondary literature, you can do subject searches in the online catalog to find books or subject searches in article databases to find articles; article databases may list books as well a articles from journals. You can also consult standard published bibliographies (e.g. the American Historical Association Guide to Historical Literature) and specialized bibliographies (e.g. The Harvard Guide to African-American History).

You can also look for review essays, in which a historian who specializes in the subject analyzes recent scholarship; you may find more lengthy historiographical treatments of the topic published as chapters in collections, journal articles, or even monographs; you can read about the topic in a subject encyclopedia and look at the bibliography at the end of the entry; and you can find a major work of scholarship on the topic and follow up on the sources used by the author (footnote tracking).

Most of the time you will find the secondary literature you need by using the online catalog, the appopriate article databases, subject encyclopedias or bibliographies, and by consulting your instructor.

Looking at the Secondary Literature Critically

You've identified some of the main currents of thought on your topic, and you've begun to reflect on your findings:

  1. Are there aspects of the topic that haven't been addressed by previous historians? How will this affect your research strategy?
  2. Do you trust all the conclusions that have been drawn by other historians? You might need to consult their original sources yourself, if they have been published, and form your own interpretations.
  3. Does the current scholarship offer enough evidence to make a convincing case? You might need to collect more evidence, and see if it corroborates or complicates our present understanding of the subject

Research Basics, Part III

Published Primary Sources.

In general, published primary source material covers a wide range of publications, including first-person accounts, memoirs, diaries, letters, newspapers, statistical reports, government documents, court records, reports of associations, organizations and institutions, treatises and polemical writings, chronicles, saints' lives, charters, legal codes, maps, graphic material (e.g. photographs, posters, advertising images, paintings, prints, and illustrations), literary works and motion pictures. Some of these materials were not published at the time of their creation (e.g. letters), but have subsequently been published in a book.

Obviously there are different types of primary sources for different historical periods. Church documents and saints' lives serve as primary sources for the study of medieval history, while newspapers, government reports, and photographs serve as primary sources for the modern period. Moreover, what constitutes a primary source depends in part on how you have formulated your research topic. In other words, there is no intrinsic or distinguishing feature of a text that makes it a primary, rather than a secondary, source. Many sources, whether visual or textual, can serve as either primary or secondary sources. The key is how you use the material. In order to determine whether a source might be primary or secondary for your purposes, you must consider it in relation to your particular topic.

How Do I Find Primary Sources?

You can find published primary sources by using the online catalog and published bibliographies. You can also look at secondary literature on your topic to ascertain what sources other scholars have used in their research. Remember that there is nothing in the online catalog record for a book that indicates whether it is a primary or secondary source, since this is not necessarily an inherent or essential characteristic.


If you're having trouble finding primary sources, then go back to your secondary literature: what sources have other scholars consulted?  These should be cited in the endnotes and/or described in an essay in the back of the book.


Paths Through Historic Research

  • Find a good secondary source (book, article), and mine its bibliography.  Look for primary sources and types of primary sources used to create the secondary source.
  • Use sources to find: synonyms/contemporary terms - people's names - place names - dates - distinctive quotations and phrases that will lead you to further sources via databases and Google Books.
  • Use Google Books Advanced search to find key phrases such as names or dates or event names in books written during a certain period and/or with a certain word in the book title, and/or by a certain author

Internet Guides to Historical Research

  • Internet for Historians
    Tutorial created by the Humbul Humanities Hub based at Oxford. The tutorial has links to key sites and information about searching for and evaluating sites.

  • A Student's Guide to the Study of History
    "Guide as an aid to high school and college students who are either taking history classes or who intend to major in history as undergraduates." Includes sections on taking notes, writing exams, choosing a topic and researching and writing papers.


First Building at Lincoln Insitute

Don't Forget...

"The problem with quotes on the internet is that it's often hard to verify their authenticity" - Abraham Lincoln