Writing a paper on History

Resources to Use When Writing a Research Paper in History

Dec 30, 2012
Writing a history paper is all about finding good resources. You need to be able to cite historical documentation to support your arguments, and it also helps to be able to name other scholars who agree with your interpretation of historical events. But what makes a good resource for a history paper, and where do you find them?

Types of resources

Historians use two distinct types of resources when doing research: primary and secondary sources. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, and each is used differently within the context of a research paper.

Primary sources

Primary sources are contemporary materials from the time period you're studying. Think of them as first-hand accounts of history: they paint a picture of an event as it's happening. Newspapers, books, magazines, government papers, letters, and films are all examples of primary source materials.
The obvious advantage of these resources is that they give you an immediate window into a historical event, person, or time period, but the reliability of primary sources can make them problematic, especially for students just learning how to write about history. A primary source is only as reliable as its author, which means every source needs to be analyzed and vetted before it can be used in a paper. Questions you need to address include:
  • Who is the author and what are the author's credentials, i.e., is he/she reliable?
  • Is the author biased?
  • Is this source representative of other examples from the time period?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • When and where was the material produced?
A primary source can never just be taken at face value, but instead must be analyzed for reliability and value. Being able to judge primary source materials and give them the appropriate weight in your paper is an important step in learning to write about history.

Secondary sources

Secondary sources are materials produced after the time period being studied. Usually they are works by scholars that incorporate and analyze primary sources in order to present an argument or interpretation of a historical event. The most common secondary source materials to cite are peer-reviewed journal articles and books; textbooks are also considered secondary sources, although they are not usually cited in research papers.
Some resources can be considered primary or secondary source materials depending on how they're used. For example, a Civil War-era book on the history of plantations in the U.S. can be used either as a secondary source (if the topic of the paper is the development of the plantation system) or as a primary source (if the topic of the paper is the paper is attitudes about plantations during the Civil War-era). So, when citing a source in your paper, make sure you are clear which type of source it is and treat it accordingly.

Where to start

You might think that in order to write a good research paper you need to dive head-first into primary source materials. After all, you're supposed to be talking about history, and isn't a first-hand account of a historical event the best place to start? But while primary source materials are indeed invaluable to historians, the place you want to start a research paper is actually with secondary resources.
Think of primary sources as puzzle pieces that have been scattered throughout libraries and archives: when put together they paint a picture of a historical event or time period. But do you really have time to find all those pieces and put the puzzle together when you're writing a paper? Probably not, and fortunately you don't have to, because other historians have already done that job for you. That's what secondary sources are: other scholars finding and analyzing primary resources. Starting a research project by looking at secondary sources will allow you to get a feel for the accepted narrative historians have put together for a particular time period as well as the debates and important issues within that narrative. Also, starting with secondary sources will save you time, as most will cite useful primary sources that you can then locate and use in your work. Once you have an understanding of the whole puzzle, only then will you be able to go back and look closely at the individual pieces.

Where to find resources

Primary sources

Because primary sources encompass such a wide variety of materials, they can be difficult to track down. Professional historians have spent their entire careers sorting through letters, speeches, government reports, and other materials in search of usable evidence. Obviously for an academic research paper there's no need for you to travel across the country to find old newspaper clippings or visit out-of-the-way old town libraries, but you can still make use of some of the easier-to-find primary resources out there.
  • Start with your secondary sources: As was discussed above, other historians have already done a lot of the work when it comes to tracking down primary sources. It may feel like cheating or a short-cut, but it's perfectly acceptable for you to look at the references of secondary works to find primary resources applicable to your topic. Don't make this any harder than it needs to be-you don't have to reinvent the wheel.
  • Archives: Libraries, town halls, and preservations societies are all good places to look for archives, which are basically just big collections of primary sources. Archives about a particular topic are usually located close to where that event took place, so take that into consideration when you're choosing a topic for your paper. For example, if there's a Civil War battleground site or the birthplace of a famous politician near you, chances are that there will be archives related to those topics nearby as well.
  • The internet: Many libraries and archives have their primary sources, or at least of catalogue of resources, available online. Below are some website that you can use to locate primary source materials. Obviously, this is just sampling of the many places online you can find primary sources, so if you don't see what you're looking for, an online search is likely to turn up other useful archives.
    • American Memory. This site from the Library of Congress has documents, films, maps, music, and other items that document U.S. history.
    • Documenting the American South. The University of North Carolina maintains this online collection of primary materials from the southern U.S.
    • Library of Congress. The Library of Congress is one of the largest libraries in the world. The collection occupies several buildings in Washington D.C., and a large portion of their materials are available online.
    • Perseus Digital Library. This online library has materials from the Greco-Roman period.
    • The National Archives. The National Archive is the official keeper of U.S. records. They preserve federal government documents, from presidential papers to military service records.
    • The Labyrinth. This collection of resources on the medieval period is maintained by Georgetown University.

Secondary sources

The key to finding a good secondary source is looking for materials that are recognized as being reliable by other scholars: this will lend authority to your paper and your arguments.
  • Peer-reviewed journals: As in most disciplines, historians publish their work in peer-reviewed journals. The articles in these journals have been vetted by other professionals in the field, so they can be used as a reliable source of evidence. Keep in mind, though, that just because it's published doesn't necessarily make it correct or true: history is made up of competing viewpoints, so always interpret the materials you cite in terms of the larger historical debate. A general database like JSTOR or a history-specific database such as the American Historical Association website is a great place to start.
  • Books: Just because you have access to the internet doesn't mean you can't also make use of your library. Historians in particular rely on books to make complex arguments about historical time periods and to offer interpretations of historical events. As with journal articles, though, it's important not to take what you read at face value. Instead, dig a little deeper by also looking at the critical reviews of books and analyzing their arguments to weigh their usefulness.

What to avoid

History can be a divisive topic. People have widely different opinions of issues like war, slavery, religion, and politics - all topics that can come up in the discussion of historical events. Thus, it's important to be able to weed out bad sources that present a single, unsupported viewpoint or that are pushing a particular agenda. Sticking with approved resources like peer-reviewed journals and well-regarded books is a good way to start, as is getting multiple sources to support crucial pieces of evidence. Another key is to stay away from general-use websites like Wikipedia and personal blogs where there's no way to verify where an argument or piece of evidence came from. Remember, the responsibility falls on you, the author, to ensure that all the references you site in your work come from reputable sources and that your evidence is strong enough to support your argument.
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