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A Guide to...African History

Research Strategies

General Research Strategies:

 

Begin your research early. Well-done research is an iterative process; leave yourself time for this process to occur! This has the added benefit of extending your resources to excellent sources which may take longer to locate.

 

Be efficient. Use the strategies we will discuss together and presented on this guide (such as: choosing appropriate and multiple research tools; making use of advanced search features, subject headings and database limiters; thoughtful choice of keywords; following your sources) to conduct your research in a targeted, effective and efficient manner. 

Leave plenty of time to read and understand your sources. This is especially true for primary sources, which may take longer to process (or read, if scans of original handwritten documents). 

 

Follow your sources. Examine the context of those sources (i.e., the scholarly conversation they participate in) and allow that context to lead you to other sources. For example: what else has this author written? What other useful sources are referenced? What other sub-conversations might I want to participate in? 

 

Ask for help as needed. Your research librarians are available to assist you -- it's literally our job! Sometimes this may mean making a research appointment; other times, a quick e-mail conversation will suffice. 

Choosing the Right Search Tool:

There are three main categories of databases that you may encounter while doing historical research:


General [Article] Databases:

  • May contain many types of sources (scholarly, non-scholarly, multimedia,etc., all typically secondary)
  • Cover a variety of subject areas; 
  • Good places to begin research OR to do research on an interdisciplinary topic. May not be specific enough for advanced research. 
Subject-Specific [Article] Databases:
 
  • May contain many types of sources (scholarly, non-scholarly, multimedia, etc., all typically secondary)
  • Focus on a specific subject area or areas;
  • Include tools designed for specialized research (e.g., ability to search by historical period).
Primary Source Databases:
  • May contain a variety of source types (newspapers, ephemera, manuscripts, etc.) or be limited to one, but all are of the primary source genre. 
  • Typically focused on the basis of one or more of the following: date; geography; type of source; and/or topic. 
  • Usually includes tools specifically designed for searching primary sources (e.g., chronological browse; ability to narrow by geography; pointers linked from introductory essays; etc.) 

In order to choose an appropriate database, you should consider your research needs. What do you need at this point in time? Are you still becoming familiar with your topic, or are you trying to fill specific gaps? 

Always consider the limitations of your topic. For example, if you are researching European history, you won't get far searching for secondary literature in America: History & Life!  This is even more important when searching for primary sources. When selecting a primary source database from our collections, you should try to identify one that matches your topic based on...

Chronology, topic, geography or genre

For example, if you are hoping to find news reports on influenza infections in London during the 1918 pandemic, not just any primary database will do! You need a resource that: 

  1. Provides access to newspapers; 
  2. Includes resources published in the UK; 
  3. Cover the period approx. 1918-1919. 

Need help selecting a database? Consult your professor, or a librarian! 

Identifying Search Terms:

Here are some general tips to guide you in choosing your search terms:
 

- Use keywords or brief (2-word) phrases instead of sentences -- one or two for each part of your topic.

- Use concepts and other nouns as your keywords.  Think of words that are likely to be used in titles (or that you have seen in titles).

- If your keywords aren't turning up many results, you may need to:

  • Try thinking of synonyms or other ways of phrasing your topic. If you can find one or two relevant articles, check to see what subjects are listed for them and try to build keywords from there. 
     
  • Try a broader search (broader topic, broader date-range, etc.).
     
  • Try a different database.

Having trouble getting started? This worksheet will walk you through the process of brainstorming keywords: 

Building On Your Research:

No piece of research stands alone; each is part of a broader scholarly conversation in that topic/ field. You can use a single article  or other resource to find other, similar research by tracing the paths of that conversation:

Keywords – Check the abstract, subject terms and full-text to discover the vocabulary being used in this particular scholarly conversation.

Subject Terms – Subject terms not only provide insight into vocabulary you should use but also serve as search tools – click on these tags in any database (or the catalog) to find more resources on a given topic.

Cited References – Check the references list (or bibliography) to see what previous research this resource is drawing on. From here, you may wish to consider: 

- Previous articles or books published on your topic
- Other authors who have published on your topic
- Journals where your topic is frequently discussed

Times Cited – Check Google Scholar to see which articles or books have cited your sources, and to find
more-recent research which builds on your original information.


** Once you find a new resource, you can also trace the scholarly conversation around that book/article to find even more resources! **


For a simpler, graphic representation of this research strategy, download the handout below: 

You can also download this worksheet to walk you through the process: 

Understanding & Choosing Sources of Information

The Information Lifecycle:

The Information Lifecycle helps us understand how information about an event, topic or idea might emerge and evolve over time. 

Primary & Secondary Sources:

primary source is a first-hand witness to a historical event or period (that is, it was originally created at that point in history).  Primary sources offer a first-hand perspective which is untouched by hindsight, subsequent events, or modern knowledge. They provide insights about the actions, motivations and emotions involved in a historical period, and allow us to understand history as it was experienced at the time rather than as we analyze it today.   

Unlike with secondary sources, the value of primary sources lies in their proximity to the event rather than a particular publication venue and/or authority (though this can also play a role in your interpretation of the source). For this reason, primary sources may include a combination of scholarly, popular, unpublished, and other kinds of sources. 

Secondary sources are second-hand witnesses -- they provide descriptions and/or analysis of historical events and documents after the fact. Secondary sources usually draw their information from primary sources, but add a layer of interpretation, and often rely upon the kind of understanding of historical periods and/or events that only becomes clear sometime later.  Handout version of primary source chart; click to enlarge

  PRIMARY SECONDARY
AUTHOR A first-hand witness to a historical event or period A second-hand witness who interprets first-hand information using later understanding of events
DATE Typically, but not always,  published in or near the relevant time period or event. Exceptions can include memoirs or compilations, translations, etc. published at a later date. Typically removed in time from the relevant period/event
ORIGINAL PURPOSE Varies widely. Typically not intentionally created for sake of history or research.  Varies; usually, to convey information or analysis
RESEARCH USE

Offers first-hand perspectives untouched by hindsight or modern knowledge

Offers descriptions, and/or analysis of historical events after the fact; may also offer synthesis of first-hand information.
PUBLICATION FORMAT Varies; can include nearly anything from an object to a scholarly article [if from the appropriate period] Typically "published" sources -- books, journal articles, magazines/newspapers
EXAMPLES NYT article from April 1912 [Titanic], 1963 book on the USSR [Cold War], George Washington's collected papers [Colonial America/Revolution] American Historical Review; current NYT articles; a book published in 2018 

Some questions that might help when...

Examining a Source:

WHO

 Who is the author?

 How is the author qualified?

 Is the author an expert?

 What is the author's bias? (Remember that a bias may not be directly stated -- but there is almost always some bias!))

WHAT 

 What is the source? Is it a research report? An entertainment piece? An opinion essay? 

 What does this tell you about the source's audience, purpose, and potential bias(es) or shortcoming(s)? 

WHEN

 Is the source recent (or, if digital, regularly updated)?  When was it published? 

 Is there any information which seems out-of-date? 

WHERE

 Who hosts the site? OR Who publishes this resource?

 Does the host/publisher have bias?  (Remember that a bias may not be directly stated.)

 What is the domain extension?

The publisher and/or domain can help you determine a website's origin. For example, .gov is the domain for United States government sites and .edu is for US Educational institutions. Note that not all .com sites are unreliable and not all .org sites are reputable -- .org simply means that the website is for a non-profit group. 
 

WHY

 What is the purpose and audience of the source?

 What is the benefit, and/or who benefits, if this source reaches and/or successfully convinces readers? 

HOW

 By what means was this source created? 

 Does the resource provide its sources?

 Does it refer/link you to other credible sources?

 Can you determine whether the information came from, and whether the original source/info is represented accurately?

 

Lateral Reading:

Lateral Reading is a more nuanced technique of evaluating websites and other kinds of sources. 

While the checklist on the previous tab is a great place to start, sometimes you can't answer those questions completely -- or, sometimes, they don't give a complete picture of the information you are looking at. 

The video below explains what lateral reading is, why it's important, and how to do it.