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Definition and examples
Definition and examples
Definition and examples
Videos and Webinars
SNHU's Learning Communities regularly host live and pre-recorded webinars on various aspects of the research and writing process. Those webinars related to topics on this page are available at the link below.
Guides to Historical Research
Historians have published numerous books with the intention of guiding students through the research process, in much greater detail than this page, with varying strengths and weaknesses. Below are some of the books that SNHU instructors have found useful:
Brundage, Anthony. Going to the Sources: A Guide to Historical Research and Writing. 5th ed. West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2013.
Turabian, Kate L. A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. 8th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.
Selecting a Topic
Choosing a topic from all of human history to research can be difficult. Your most important goal is to select a topic that is practical for a major research paper that can be completed in an eight- or ten-week course. Some things to do and things to avoid:
- Choose a topic that you enjoy. You will spend a lot of time with this, and you will do a lot of reading on this topic. Choose something that will not drive you nuts.
- Choose a topic that matters to other people. Why should other people read your project if there is nothing in it for them?
- Start with books you’ve read already. Make it easy on yourself. If you have a favorite book of history, start with that topic and mine the footnotes/endnotes and bibliography for other relevant sources. Choosing something you’ve already encountered will give you a head start, as long as there is still something new to say about that topic.
- Avoid topics that are too big. “The battles of the Civil War” is probably not a good topic because historians have written hundreds of books on that and it will be very difficult to whittle it down to a manageable project. It could also be difficult to find something original to say about such a topic.
- Consider local historical topics. Major research projects will require you to access sources that are not available online. Since lengthy research trips are unrealistic for many students with full-time jobs and other responsibilities, think local. You will find great primary sources in local archives, libraries, historical societies, and museums.
- Avoid topics that invite conspiracy theories. The JFK assassination, the moon landing, contact with extraterrestrial life, contrails, fluoridation of municipal water supplies, and almost anything related to the CIA are probably not suitable for historical research project because you will have to wade through crackpots in your search for legitimate sources.
- Avoid recent events for lack of sources. Not enough time has passed since the 9/11 attacks, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or the Great Recession for useful sources to pop up (beyond the liberal/conservative political interpretations). The mid-twentieth century is a natural cut-off point for most history projects. If you want to pursue a topic that is more recent, contact your instructor and be prepared to provide evidence of the practicality of your topic.
Your topic will probably change as you complete research. A lack of sources may lead you in a different direction, or your personal interests may take you in another. Historians often love to immerse themselves in sources and wander from topic to topic. Always keep deadlines in mind, though, and contact your instructor if you have any concerns or questions.
Types of Sources
A primary source is written by a participant in a historical event. It can be a letter, speech, diary, memoir, article, or any other record of that person's perspective on the event. Primary sources may be published (such as articles or memoirs), or they may be unpublished (including diaries or letters). They are the raw resources, or the essential ingredients, that historians use to reconstruct the past. Not all primary sources are written. Cave paintings, maps, photographs, clothing, and the built environment can all function as primary sources also.
Primary sources are always biased because they represent the perspectives of individuals.
For the purposes of most history papers, translations of primary sources originally written in languages other than English are still considered primary sources, as long as the translator is properly credited in the footnote and bibliography. For graduate capstones, theses, and dissertations, the researcher should attempt his or her own translation of the primary source.
A secondary source is written after the event happened, usually by somebody who did not participate in the historical events under discussion. Secondary sources are built upon primary sources. They interpret primary sources in order to make sense of them.
Secondary sources can be biased in many ways. The historian may cherry-pick primary sources that support a pre-conceived interpretation. The historian may not access all relevant primary sources, which could skew the historian's conclusions because he or she missed important information that could lead to different conclusions. However, bias is not always a bad thing. Historians are human, and humans are subjective creatures. Recognition of bias can prompt historians to strive for greater objectivity. A secondary source with a revealing bias can also be interesting from a historiographical perspective because they can lead to very strong arguments.
Sometimes a source could be classified as primary and/or secondary, depending on the research question being asked. For example, Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published between 1776 and 1789, would be a secondary source for a project on the politics of the late Roman Empire, but it would be a primary source for a project on the writing styles of Georgian-era historians in England.
Tertiary sources are often syntheses of secondary sources and incorporate very few (if any) primary sources. The most common tertiary sources are encyclopedias and textbooks. Tertiary sources often try to summarize a vast literature on a topic rather than advance new historical arguments. These sources can provide useful context and background information for history projects but should never be cited as authoritative. It is often impossible to identify the author (or, in collaborative projects like Wikipedia, the author can change from revision to revision). These sources rarely undergo peer review, and quality control may be spotty. They are usually good sources for facts (like names, dates, and places), but be careful with the sources' interpretations of those facts.
Finding Secondary Sources
Researchers usually start with secondary sources. Secondary sources (books and articles, mostly) provide useful introductions to historical topics and place those topics in broader historical contexts. Secondary sources use primary sources (discussed below) to provide support for the author's argument. Every secondary source will include unique arguments about the historical topic, and researchers should be familiar with all secondary sources that are relevant to the topic. Familiarity with the secondary literature will help the researcher avoid duplicating somebody else's work. Those secondary sources will also identify potentially useful primary source collections for later researchers.
In order to write an authoritative paper, a historian must rely on authoritative secondary sources. These are generally books and articles that have gone through the peer review process. In the peer review process, two or more experts other than the author review the work and vouch for its veracity, its methodology, and its argumentation, even if the reviewers disagree with the author's conclusions. Most professional academic publishers require peer review of books and article manuscripts before they will accept the work for publication.
Many books listed on WorldCat are available at SNHU's Shapiro Library. The library will mail books
Another option for accessing sources is Interlibrary Loan (ILL), a free cooperative service between libraries that provides current SNHU students, staff, faculty, and faculty emeritus access to books, articles, and other materials that Shapiro Library does not own. The library will provide ebooks whenever possible to save time. Hardcopies usually take at least 7-15 days to arrive via mail. Click the link below for more information and to start the ILL process.
State, county, or city public libraries may also have relevant books. Most libraries' catalogs are online. In some states, all of the libraries use the same search engines and can loan books to each other like an interlibrary loan but on an informal basis. Become a member of your local library and see what it has to offer.
Local university libraries are probably the best local sources for academic works. Public libraries tend to carry more pop history and less academic history. Universities can be stingy with granting library access to non-students, though, so contact the university librarian for more information. Telling the librarian that you are a student at another institution may grease the wheels a bit.
Some books are available in electronic format. The following databases include links to academic eBooks in history and related fields.
The Shapiro Library provides online access to numerous databases containing journal articles, book reviews, and essays of interest to historians. Some of these databases only include back issues before a certain date, but that depends on the journal's publisher. SNHU does not subscribe to all journals, so you may not have access to everything that shows up in a results list. The databases most useful to historians are listed below.
- America: History & Life - The definitive database of literature covering the history and culture of the United States and Canada, from prehistory to the present. With indexing for 1,700 journals from 1964 to present, this database is without question the most important bibliographic reference tool for students and scholars of U.S. and Canadian history.
- Arts & Humanities Database - This database features hundreds of titles covering History, Art, Architecture, Design, Philosophy, Music, Literature, Theatre and Cultural Studies.
- History Cooperative - Maintained jointly by the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, JSTOR, the University of Illinois Press, and the National Academy Press, History Cooperative provides access to 21 leading history journals.
- JSTOR - Database of archival issues of scholarly journals, many dating back to inception. SNHU subscription to the Arts & Sciences I, Arts & Sciences II, and Arts & Sciences IV collections includes the complete runs of over 300 important journals. Archives over 50 core history journals.
- Periodicals Archive Online - Archive of hundreds of digitized historically-respected journals covering the arts, humanities and social sciences. Some journals are indexed as far back as 1665.
- Project Muse - Collection of full text, peer-reviewed journal articles, with emphasis on the humanities and social sciences. Date coverage: 1993-present. Contains coverage of over 60 history-specific journals and many more regional studies journals.
- ProQuest Dissertations and Theses - With more than 2.4 million entries, the ProQuest Dissertations & Theses: Full Text (PQDT) database is the most comprehensive collection of dissertations and theses in the world
Click here to see the full list of databases available through the Shapiro Library.
Finding Primary Sources
Secondary sources help historians to establish the context of a historical topic. Historians use primary sources to support their arguments.
Online Primary Source Collections
In online programs like SNHU, it makes sense for students to search for primary sources that have been digitized and uploaded to the internet.
- Internet History Sourcebooks - Paul Halsall began collecting primary source texts in 1996 while still a graduate student at Fordham University. He graduated and moved on, but he continues to work on his collection today. Transcribed texts from China, Japan, India, Greece, and beyond are organized by theme, region, time period, and more.
- Yale University's Avalon Project - Yale University has collected a wide variety of legal documents pertaining to the history of developing a legal system. These laws, decrees, and codes allow us to see what challenges people faced the past—perceived or real—and how authorities tried to deal with such problems.
How to do archival research...
Archives come in many forms. Most governments maintain archives of official papers, such as the following:
Private entities also maintain archives. Corporations, philanthropic organizations, and
- Library of Congress Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers - Search America's historic newspaper pages from 1789-1924 or use the U.S. Newspaper Directory to find information about American newspapers published between 1690-present.
- New York Times Historical Database - This historical newspaper provides genealogists, researchers and scholars with online, easily-searchable first-hand accounts and unparalleled coverage of the politics, society and events of the time. Coverage: 1851 - 2013.
- Small Town Papers - Choose from over 250 small town newspapers you can read free every week. Browse and search the scanned newspaper archive from 1846 up to the current edition.
Oral History Collections