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HIS 250: Historical Methods

Research process

The research process is one of the most important things to understand as you begin this project and those in your other classes. Without having a plan in place when you get started, you will flounder at the beginning, fall behind, and find yourself rushed and unable to produce a work that you will be proud of and one that will fail to help you achieve the goal you wish to achieve in this class. By following the advice and steps on this page, you can create a strategy for this - and other projects - to avoid that situation. 

Research strategies

Pearl Growing: Front-End approach (used at beginning of search)

Research strategy that finds one ideal source that is similar to what you're researching.
The terms used to index that one perfect source are then used to track down other sources that have been indexed with the same terms.

    Ex: Subject Headings

    Example search: Norman Conquest in the Library Catalog
    Example search: Norman Conquest in Historical Abstracts

    Example search: Norman Conquest in JSTOR

Bibliography Mining: Back-End approach (used once other sources have been acquired)

Research strategy that looks at the bibliographical references within a major academic work (article or book) that is on your topic.
A researcher then goes out and finds those sources, which contain more 'deposits' of historical discourse.

    Example search:
      The Norman Conquest, A Very Short Introduction
, by Garnett,
      DA 195.G37 2009

Bibliographic essays may also be found at the end of some prominent works and textbooks which guide the researcher to other sources. Sometimes these take the form of "For Further Reading"

And of course, Literature Reviews of historical writings are invaluable.

Research & writing integrity

Accurately documenting sources used for research is an important part of the writing and research process. Documentation is important because:

  • It is used to give credit for information originally written elsewhere
  • Documentation enables others to find the same information again.
  • Failure to give credit for drawing on the work of others constitutes plagiarism.

Academic writing is a conversation. It is how scholars of the disciplines speak with one another and share their agreements and disagreements on topics under study. You are now part of that conversation. As such, you are expected to know, understand, and play by the rules. Just like sports, each discipline has their own set of disciplinary rules to follow and failure to do so can have consequences. Beyond the obvious one that concerns you (plagiarism), scholars who fail to follow the rules face ostracism, embarrassment, and possibly the loss of employment and credibility among their peers. Be sure to know and follow the rules for your discipline as you begin your academic journey.

Step 1 - Topic & question

It is important to do some initial research before committing to one specific topic in history. One of the most effective ways to find a topic is to start broad on a general topic that interests you, do some reading, and then focus your topic.
Course Textbooks – to familiarize yourself with your general topic.
Encyclopedias – to familiarize yourself with your general topic.  
Library books – to research your topic more fully and to begin gathering possible sources.
      Library Catalog
Bibliographies - Academic texts will ALWAYS have bibliographical references (footnotes, endnotes, works cited, etc.) that cite source material. If a scholalry work you are using lacks any references, chances are, it's NOT scholarly.
Your Professor! - No one has a better understanding of this area and no one wants you to choose an effective topic more.

Step 2 - Identify sources

After you have picked and developed a topic, you have to find a wealth of resources to help you answer the question you are asking and seeking to answer. We talked about the different types of sources you are going to encounter in your research on another page. But, to get started, tertiary sources are often the best place to begin. Using encyclopedias, dictionaries, and other similar resources will help identify some of the sources and documents you need to gain a background in your chosen topic. This base of knowledge will help you build a list of sources to consult to gain a deeper knowledge that you will need to be successful. 

After you identify the sources that you must consult, it is time use the tools at your disposal to conduct some basic research. Tools such as the library's catalog, databases, reference resources, and open web searches can help you find and access the sources you need to work on your paper. 

Step 3 - Use sources

Once your sources have been located and are in hand, the time has come to use them effectively and efficiently to conduct your research. This is by far the longest step of the process. Historical research and reading takes time - a lot of time - so be sure that you have a plan in place to devote the time needed to gain everything you need in order to be prepared to write your paper. However, don't think that just because you read what you have on hand that you're ready to write. Even as you start writing, you may find yourself going back to your resources over and over again and there may even be more added beyond your initial group. Always keep an open mind and and open resource list.


Once you have sources in hand and are working to use them to build an effective, persuasive argument that will be accepted by not only your professor but also by the scholarly community, you also need to devote time to evaluate the sources you are using to make sure they meet the standard needed in an academic paper. Being able to accurately evaluate the information you find while doing research is a useful skill to have. Academic libraries and the Internet are both large sources of information with extensive resources. Both, libraries and the internet, develop their resources differently and evaluating what is there and available is not always easy. 

An easy tool to use to help you evaluate the sources you are using is to remember a short list of things to do when looking at a source. Simply remember S.I.F.T and apply the principles to any source you have:

S - Stop: Anytime you hit a source, stop to consider a few things. Ask yourself if you know the source and trust the information it is imparting to you. This is vital especially for websites where some information is less credible than other places. 

I - Investigate: Know what you are reading before you read it. This doesn't mean you have to do a Pulitzer prize-winning investigation into a source before you engage with it. But if you're reading a piece on economics by a Nobel prize-winning economist, you should know that before you read it. Conversely, if you're watching a video on the many benefits of milk consumption that was put out by the dairy industry, you probably want to know that as well.

This doesn't mean the Nobel economist will always be right and that the dairy industry can't ever be trusted. But knowing the expertise and agenda of the source is crucial to your interpretation of what they say. Taking sixty seconds to figure out where it is from before reading will help you decide if it is worth your time, and if it is, help you to better understand its significance and trustworthiness.

F - Find trusted coverage: Everything that you will read for this - and all of your - projects are making claims. They are trying to impart information to you in a manner to persuade you that they and their interpretation is right. In order to judge this, you need to ignore the first source that reached you and look for other trusted reporting or analysis on the claim. In other words, if you receive an article that says koalas have just been declared extinct from the Save the Koalas Foundation, the winning strategy may be to open up a new tab or find a new book and find the best source you can that covers this, or, just as importantly, scan multiple sources to see what the consensus seems to be. In these cases we encourage you to "find trusted coverage" that better suits your needs — more trusted, more in-depth, or maybe just more varied. We'll show you some techniques to do this sort of thing quickly.

Do you have to agree with the consensus? Absolutely not! But understanding the context and history of a claim will help you better evaluate it.

T - Trace claims, quotes, and other information back to the original context: A lot of times, in any kind of source you find, the context of a quote or video has been stripped away. This is done because the creator has chosen to not include some information, either due to space/time constraints, or has willfully left out information that does not agree with their point of view. For example, maybe there's a video of a fight between two people. But what happened before that? Who started it? What was clipped out of the video and what stayed in? Maybe there's a picture that seems real but the caption is dubious at best. Maybe a claim is made about a new medical treatment supposedly based on a research paper — but you're not certain if the paper supports it.

In these cases we'll have you trace the claim, quote, or media back to the source, so you can see it in its original context and get a sense if the version you saw was accurately presented.

By employing these moves in your evaluation, you will be able to recontexutalize your sources to make sure they meet your need and will help you to effectively - and properly - make your argument and defend your claim as you work through the project. 


Bibliography Mining is an effecient way to discover primary source material.

Often students will begin searching for primary sources by simply typing in a search term and 'primary documents.' This might work on occasion, and there are publications that are devoted to primary source material, but it is much more effective to collect citations from the bibliographical references within a text that is focused on your topic. This is often only accomplished by getting the physical item in your hands.  

Acquiring the material is the tricky part.