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How To – Research

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Types of Source Materials

There are two major types of source material used by researchers; these are known as primary and secondary sources:

  • Primary Sources – Primary sources provide firsthand accounts about a person or event. They include letters, diaries, speeches, interviews, newspaper articles from the time, and many other types of documents.
  • Secondary Sources – Secondary sources are usually published books or articles in which the author presents a personal interpretation of a topic, based on primary sources. Most library books are secondary sources, as are encyclopedias. Secondary sources are important because they show how people have formed different opinions about historical events.

Using the Internet for Research

The Internet has redefined the way in which many students do research by providing them with immediate access to seemingly unlimited resources. While use of the Internet has opened up many new possibilities for students doing research, it does bring with it several limitations. Ease of access may entice many students to depend almost exclusively on the Internet for their research. The Internet, however, is only one source of information and should be used only as one part of a well-balanced research process that includes libraries, museums, archives, and oral history interviews. The Internet contains only a small percentage of the research materials and documents in existence. At present, most repositories include only one to two percent of their actual holdings on the Internet. Some of the most significant information related to a student’s research topic may not be available on the Internet.

It is also important for students to understand that not all sources on the Internet are legitimate or credible. The fact that information is provided on various Web sites in no way guarantees that it is relevant or even accurate. Students should learn to evaluate their sources, both in print and online, by asking questions about a source’s origin and authorship.

Primary Sources – back to top

What Is a Primary Source?

Primary sources are materials directly related to a topic by time or participation. These materials include letters, speeches, diaries, newspaper articles from the time, oral history interviews, documents, photographs, artifacts, or anything else that provides first-hand accounts about a person or event. Check out the Research Roadmap for more help.Some materials might be considered primary sources for one topic but not for another. For example, a newspaper article about D-Day (which was June 6, 1944) written in June 1944 was likely written by a participant or eyewitness and would be a primary source; an article about D-Day written in June 2001 probably was not written by an eyewitness or participant and would not be a primary source. Similarly, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered soon after the 1863 battle, is a primary source for the Civil War, but a speech given on the 100th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg in 1963 is not a primary source for the Civil War. If, however, the topic was how Americans commemorate the Civil War, then the 100th anniversary speech would be a primary source for that topic. If there’s any doubt about whether a source should be listed as primary or secondary, you should explain in the annotation why you chose to categorize it as you did.


Are interviews with experts primary sources?
No, an interview with an expert (a professor of Civil War history, for example) is not a primary source, UNLESS that expert actually lived through and has first-hand knowledge of the events being described.

If I find a quote from a historical figure in my textbook or another secondary source and I use the quote in my project, should I list it as a primary source?
No, quotes from historical figures which are found in secondary sources are not considered primary sources. The author of the book has processed the quotation, selecting it from the original source. Without seeing the original source for yourself, you don’t know if the quotation is taken out of context, what else was in the source, what the context was, etc.

Should I list each photograph or document individually?
You should handle this differently in notes than in the bibliography. When you are citing sources for specific pieces of information or interpretations, such as in footnotes or endnotes, you should cite the individual document or photograph. In the bibliography, however, you would cite only the collection as a whole, not all the individual items. You should include the full title of the collection (i.e., Digges-Sewall Papers or the Hutzler Collection), the institution and city or city/state where the collection is located (i.e., Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore). You can use the annotation to explain that this collection provided 7 photographs which you used in your exhibit or that collection provided14 letters which were important in helping you trace what happened. The same treatment applies to newspaper articles. In the footnotes or endnotes, you should cite the individual articles and issues of a newspaper. In the bibliography, you would list only the newspaper itself, not the individual issues or articles; you can use the annotation to explain that you used X number of days of the newspaper for your research.

Finding and Using Primary Source Material

Once students have collected the basic information and sources on their topic, they will need to locate primary source materials. Primary sources should make up a substantial share of the research for all History Day entries. It is important to remember that primary sources provide firsthand accounts about people and events.

Places to Look for Primary Source Material

Students should consider the following sources when looking for primary source material:

  • Municipal and College Libraries
  • Local and State Historical Associations
  • Museums
  • State Archives
  • Corporate Archives
  • Town and County Historians
  • Town Hall Records
  • Town Planning Offices
  • Schools
  • Churches
  • Community Groups, such as the VFW, DAR, Ethnic Organizations, etc.
  • Community Residents

Secondary Sources – back to top

excerpted from “A Research Roadmap,” by Jodi Vandenberg-Daves, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

It’s important to start your research journey by looking at some secondary sources. This will help you understand how to place your topic in the larger historical context. History books and other reference materials help you understand why your topic is important and how it relates to economic, social and political developments of the period. A good National History Day project draws on several kinds of secondary sources, in addition to your own original interpretation of primary sources. Look at monographs as well as general reference books to get background on your topic. You will discover that professional historians bring their own biases to the topics they research, and you should seek more than one perspective on the issues you are researching.

  • Reference Books

    Look for general information in: encyclopedias, special historical dictionaries, and historical atlases. General encyclopedias such as World Book can provide you with basic information, while subject encyclopedias such as the Encyclopedia of the North American Colonies or the Encyclopedia of American Economic History provide a bit more detailed information. Encyclopedia articles often have bibliographies which can direct you to some of the major secondary sources for a topic.

  • Popular Periodical Literature

    Popular magazines, indexed in the Readers= Guide to Periodical Literature, can give you ideas for and some general information about particular topics. National Geographic provides general information on provocative topics. Many other magazines and newspapers publish articles dealing with individuals or historical issues. For example, in the mid-1990s many U.S. newspapers and magazines wrote about Nelson Mandela, whose political activism helped revolutionize South African society by ending apartheid, and who became president of South Africa in 1994 after spending 28 years in prison for his politics. Starting a project on apartheid, you might begin here, and get ideas for interesting topics about the events that led to this revolution.

  • History Textbooks

    Yes, really! Your textbook can be a great place to get ideas for topics and find out about the general context of your topic. If you’re interested in the invention of the telescope as it revolutionized astronomy, first do some background reading on the scientific revolution as a whole, perhaps in a general textbook on European history. This will help you understand how your topic fits in with the a big picture.

  • General Historical Works and Monographs

    Move from the general to the specific. A book on the history of astronomy will provide more detail than a general text on European history. Try a keyword search at a larger library and you’ll find dozens, if not hundreds, of books on the history of astronomy and related sciences. Another way to find secondary sources on your topic is to check the notes and bibliographies of books you’ve already found. And sometimes you might be able to find an entire book which is a bibliography on your topic; these books will be in the reference section, especially at university libraries. A good guide to the best books in just about any area of history is The American Historical Association’s Guide to Historical Literature, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

  • Journal Articles

    Historians don’t always write books. Smaller essays on specific topics can be found in scholarly journals. These are periodicals similar to magazines, only they are specifically focused on history topics. There are general journals, like The Journal of American History, and more specific ones, like History of Education. Academic journals can usually be found at college and university libraries, and there are often indexes to help you find an article on a specific topic. Or just peruse some of these journals to see what kinds of questions professional historians are asking about your topic.