Researching Historically

Given the importance of finding appropriate sources, both primary and secondary, historians must develop good research skills. Paramount among these skills is knowing where to look to find sources that are off the beaten-track, not just those whose creators used the best keywords for search- engine algorithms. Digital repositories, published and archival resources, sources that are not written (such as numerically based sources that must be translated, maps, and oral interviews) all can and often should be consulted, depending upon one’s research question.  Sections in this chapter offer some guidance in understanding how these sources are created, collected and preserved, and currently accessed.


While the challenge of the hunt, as well as immersing oneself in primary sources can be fun—who doesn’t like to read other people’s mail?—collecting the information from those sources is still governed by the standards of scholarship (a topic in the next chapter, but it might behelpful to read it out of order).  In “Researching Historically” you’ll find advice on how to narrow your topic enough to make it “researchable” in a few weeks, as well as how to take notes effectively.  Every historian eventually establishes a set of research habits that suit their style of learning and writing, but before you settle on a path, spend some time experimenting with the suggestions found here or recommended by your instructor. Above all, get started early on your research so that you leave plenty of time to consider multiple options to get the best primary sources, or to refine your historical questions based on the sources you have located.


In closing, as you learn new ways to find and organize information, consider keeping notes on your process. Such a “meta” list–that is, not what you found but what you did to find materials and keep track of them–might help remind you the next time you have to research a question for another assignment, in some later class. But better yet, the knowledge you gain here is the basis of skills many employers want. Those skilled in historical detective work are some of the best researchers around, and someday soon, you may well want to remember the transferable skills and experiences you developed as a history major.



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How History is Made: A Student’s Guide to Reading, Writing, and Thinking in the Discipline Copyright © 2022 by Stephanie Cole; Kimberly Breuer; Scott W. Palmer; and Brandon Blakeslee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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