How to Write a Research Paper in History/Finding sources

As a knowledge-creating discipline, history is driven primarily by its sources. This section is designed to help the student think about finding sources, types of sources, and the difficulties inherent in sources.

What is a source?Edit

"Sources" is a catch-all term for any information used by the historian to generate narratives (a story about what happened in the past) and interpretations (conclusions drawn about the meaning of this story). Sources are to the historian what measurements are to the scientist, in a very real sense. Just like the scientist who wants to measure the sun, one must first think very carefully about what one is trying to measure and how one is trying to measure it. What sources are available can very well shape the questions asked, for trying to answer questions for which there are no sources is not the work of the historian.

Sources used by the historian can be broadly divided into two categories: primary sources and secondary sources. The former, as you probably know, consists of any source which is to be taken as a "document of its time" — something to be read and analyzed as a bit of information. A secondary source is a work which was derived from primary sources. The line between these can be somewhat blurred — things generally considered secondary sources can also be taken as "documents of their time" in many circumstances (a paper about historical education in the United States, for example, would likely use many textbooks, usually considered secondary sources, as primary sources).

Using secondary sourcesEdit

Though it may seem an odd notion at first, historians cannot usually effectively work with primary sources if they have not first read over many secondary sources. The reason for this is that any historical question will involve immersing one's self in a massive amount of historical contingency. Every historical event is embedded in a larger historical framework, and no historian can re-invent the wheel each time he wants to write a paper. Reading the work of other historians related to your topic will allow you to see the entire historical landscape that you are entering in, and give you the ability to interpret the primary sources you will look at. Other historians are not always correct, of course, and one should always maintain a free mindset when doing one's own research. But knowledge of secondary sources is essential, especially for beginners, if only for the reason that anybody reading your work will expect that you are familiar with the more prominent works done by other historians.

Secondary sources can also be useful for their own citations and references, which can alert you as to what sorts of primary sources exist for your topic. Paying attention to how other historians construct and craft their narratives will also give you a more clear idea of how you will do it yourself when you come to writing.

Using primary sourcesEdit

Primary sources, while the mainstay of the historical diet, are problematic little beasts. They are only as reliable as the person or people who created them. Their veracity and applicability must be weighed against the sum of all other information about the subject. They cannot be simply taken at face value, and must be weighed within the context of their creation.

The types of primary sources available depends very heavily on the topic. A medievalist uses very different types of sources than someone working on the history of the Cold War, both in terms of what sorts of media the sources consist of (e.g., parchment vs. typewritten letters) as well as the reason for creating such a source (e.g., showing the divinity of a ruler vs. attempting to work within a large democratic bureaucracy). Assessing what types of sources are available for any given topic can be most easily done by reading through secondary literature. Looking for new sources is of course always encouraged and can lead to real and new breakthroughs, but in general one is usually stuck with known sources.

Limitations of sourcesEdit

Sources can only "say" so much about the past. For example, a newspaper article about a historical event might seem like a great way to learn about the event, but how much can an article say about the past? Journalism is often called the "first draft" of history, but like most "first drafts" there is much editing to be done — a newspaper article will often lack historical consciousness, much less a good deal of less-obvious facts about a given event, orientated around a goal of selling newspapers. This doesn't invalidate a newspaper article as a source, but it does place limitations on what you can use it for. A newspaper article could provide some factual information about an event itself, but it must always be interpretted through the lens of a historian aware of its limitations; such a source would be perhaps best used (and thought about) as evidence of how an event was reported, rather than how an event actually occurred. This when some take place sudden or unexpexted.

This consideration of epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge itself) is neccesary for any source used. Diaries, letters, parchment, official histories, newspaper articles, telegrams, manuscripts, interviews, and even photography have their own separate limitations which need to be considered before a final conclusion is drawn.

Though historical methodology in regards to sources urges much caution, the historian is also lucky in that almost any form of recorded information can be a source: the records of governments or businesses, the correspondence of individuals, early drafts of manuscripts or articles, interviews and oral histories (previously made or conducted yourself), published works, telegrams, etc. Most of these sorts of primary sources will be found in research libraries and archives, though their exact locations can be difficult to track down.

Finding secondary sourcesEdit

Finding worthwhile secondary sources will save you a lot of time and effort later, and allow you to have a more comprehensive view of your primary sources. Below are general suggestions towards this end.

  1. Talk to a reference librarian. Reference librarians will, at the very least, be able to point out to you where in the library you should be looking. They may be able to give you a whole host of things to look at.
  2. Browse the shelves. Once you've found a single book which looks certainly related, look at the books physically near it on the shelves as well. Most library filing systems are thematically based, so you will often find very similar books nearby, sometimes ones you may not have noticed otherwise. Of course, any given book may be in a number of categories, so you can't rely on this as a comprehensive approach.
  3. Look at the sources used by articles on related subjects. Most articles, usually in the first three footnotes, will have a long footnote of all of the relevant "standard" secondary source literature for the topic, used as a way of signalling to the reader what they ought to read if they are having difficulty with the basic premise of the paper. You should have a passing acquaintance with these as well, at the very least.
  4. Don't be afraid to skim. You usually will not need to read every word of all of your secondary sources. Use the table of contents and index to good effect, find the most relevant sections. Reading the introduction carefully is definitely recommended — along with telling you the approach the author is bringing to the topic, they will often, in academic histories, give you a short summary of the book as a whole, with explanations of what each chapter will cover. This can save you a lot of time. In an ideal world, we'd all have enough time to read every printed word on a subject. But this is not an ideal world.
  5. Use online databases to their fullest extent. There are many online databases available which can help you in this aim. If you have access to JSTOR, it will be a great help for you, both in locating full historical articles on any number of topics, but also allowing you to search book reviews to see how any given historical work was received. Inquire with your reference librarian about what sorts of online resources are available and how to use them. Your library's website may have an excellent online search function, with access to various journals, databases and reviews. Many colleges and universities buy memberships to sites like JSTOR, so accessing articles through your library's website may be free.

Finding primary sourcesEdit

The following is a general approach to finding primary sources, but again, there is no sure-fire way to do it — there is always a bit of luck involved.

  1. Look at the sources used in relevant secondary literature. The first step, and the easiest, is to simply look at what other historians have already been looking at. Pay attention especially to references to archives — they may contain additional records not surveyed by that particular historian. Don't be afraid to look at sources which have already been heavily used by historians — there are often things missed and new people bring new interpretations to old things.
  2. Contact archives and research libraries which may plausibly have records related to your topic. Geographical proximity often (but not always!) is helpful in this respect (check with archives near wherever the creator of the records may have been). Most archives and libraries have librarians who know their collections very well and can be quite helpful in tracking down sources. When possible, try to get finding aids for larger collections, as they will help you figure out how useful the collection may be (and save you a lot of time).
  3. Contact other researchers in the field. Don't be afraid to e-mail or call other researchers in the same field. Tell them a little about yourself, tell them the topic of the paper you are working on, and ask if they have any suggestions towards working on it. A flattering note about how their own work has so far been useful to you, and how you believe that if anyone would know about this, they would, always helps. Even if the particular researcher you e-mail does not know about the topic, they may know someone better to contact — most historians belong to professional societies, read trade journals, and keep in touch with the general layout of the discipline, and can point you in the right direction even if they have no knowledge about the topic itself.


Next section: Doing research

Last modified on 26 January 2012, at 23:03