It’s that time of year when history students start writing research essays! If you’re a first or second year history student that’s not sure how to properly research an essay, here are some tips to get you started!
The first thing you need to know is that Google is not a synonym for research. Neither is Wikipedia. If you’re just trying to find a topic that you want to write about, then sure, browse the World Wide Web all you want. But when it comes to scholarly research, a general Internet search is not going to be helpful or efficient.
Secondary Sources: When beginning to research an essay, I recommend starting with secondary sources. The reason for this is to see what is out there and what research has already been done. You don’t want to simply repeat what a historian has done 50 years before. History is an ongoing conservation where you need to acknowledge the work that has already been done and contribute to the conservation with your own work.
So where to find secondary sources? If your essay topic is directly related to course work, I recommend starting with your textbooks. Professors choose textbooks for a reason; they are well researched and properly sourced. If you’re starting with your textbook, find the section that discusses your topic, even if it’s just a paragraph. Note the footnote/endnote numbers, and flip to the end of the chapter/book. There you can see where the textbook authors got their information, and go find those books. Once you have those books, again, look at the bibliography and find more sources from there. This is a great way to find legitimate academic sources, because academic scholars (including professors) read and use each other’s work when writing their own books.
If you can’t use your textbook, you need to use your school library. University libraries are a beautiful thing. Using the online catalogue, search using topics terms to get the largest amount of results. Make sure you’re aware of the search parameters. From there, you can slowly limit your search until you find the materials you need. Many online systems will catalogue items based on subject, so if you find a source that looks promising, scroll down to the bottom of the page and see if there are other sources lumped in with that subject.
The type of paper you are writing will reflect the type of source you use. Books are larger, and therefore can contain lots of information within them. Articles are shorter, and so will contain less information, but that information could be more up to date and relevant.
And now onto the most important part of a research essay: Primary sources!
First of all, the Internet is an amazing, but a dangerous thing. We are so lucky to live in a digital age with so much information at our fingertips. Feel free to use the Internet when searching for primary sources, but be careful to make sure what you are finding is authentic. On the Internet, anyone can take a kid’s finger painting and call it a Picasso.
When it comes to primary sources, I would again recommend using your library’s resources as much as possible. Many universities sign copyright deals with primary source databases, making thousands of primary source materials exclusively available to the university’s students. These databases are usually available through the university’s website.
If you are struggling on your own, know that there are so many people who want to help you! Schedule an appointment with the history librarian at your university, and have them help you search for sources. It might be that they have an idea you never would have thought out, such as microfilm/microfiche.
If you have any questions, feel free to post them in the comments section.