Research & Documentation Online 5th Edition

Researching in History

Research in history involves developing an understanding of the past through the examination and interpretation of evidence. Evidence may exist in the form of texts, physical remains of historic sites, recorded data, pictures, maps, artifacts, and so on. The historian’s job is to find evidence, analyze its content and biases, corroborate it with further evidence, and use that evidence to develop an interpretation of past events that holds some significance for the present.

Historians use libraries to

  • locate primary sources (firsthand information such as diaries, letters, and original documents) for evidence
  • find secondary sources (historians’ interpretations and analyses of historical evidence)
  • verify factual material as inconsistencies arise

Doing historical research is a little like excavating an archaeological site. It requires patience, insight, and imagination as well as diligence and the proper tools. As you find and examine primary sources, you need to imagine them in their original context and understand how your present-day point of view may distort your interpretation of them. You need to recognize not only your own biases but also the biases that shaped primary materials in their own period. You need to brush away the layers of interpretation that time has imposed on these materials and imaginatively re-create the complexities of the environment in which they originated. Students doing historical research should be prepared to

  • survey historians’ interpretations of the past while recognizing how their purposes or backgrounds might influence those interpretations
  • understand the context in which primary sources were generated
  • identify conflicting evidence and locate factual and interpretive information that can help resolve or illuminate inconsistencies

Many bibliographies can help you identify primary and secondary sources related to a topic or historical period. Be sure to examine bibliographies and footnotes in secondary sources as you find them, since they will often lead you to primary sources. Finally, innumerable encyclopedias, dictionaries, handbooks, and chronologies can provide information to round out your interpretations and ground them in fact. Consult a librarian to find out what the reference shelves offer for your topic and whether the library has any special collections of microfilm, archives, manuscripts, or other primary sources especially suited to your research.

Use the menu at the top left for help with Finding Sources or Documenting Sources in the humanities.