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HIST 299: Histories of Disease & Healing (Conz): Start Here: Strategies & Sources

Spring 2023

Research Strategies

CHOOSE A TOOL: 

As historical researchers, we might use... 


The Library Catalog [or CrossSearch]

  • May contain many types of sources (scholarly, non-scholarly, multimedia,etc., both secondary and primary) 
  • Covers a variety of subject areas; 
  • Best place to find books for background on your topic. 

General (Article) Databases [or CrossSearch]

  • 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 (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‚Äč
  • May contain a variety of source types (newspapers, manuscripts, etc.) or be limited to one
  • Typically focused on the basis of one or more of the following: date; place; type of source; and/or topic. 
  • Usually includes tools specifically designed for searching primary sources

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? 

For example, if you are hoping to find news reports on the London Blitz, not just any database will do! You need a resource that: 

  1. Provides access to newspapers; 
  2. Includes resources published in the UK; 
  3. Cover the period 1940-1941. 

Not sure which tool to use? Ask a librarian! 

Craft Your Keywords:

Any research process begins by figuring out how to search. But, where to begin? 



""BRAINSTORM. 

Spend a few minutes thinking about what words could be used to describe the topic. Be as  specific as you can. 
 

EXPAND
For each of the words you listed, think of other words or phrases you could use that mean the same thing.
 

USE EXPERT SEARCH TRICKS!
Use AND and OR to make your search more or less specific! This will give you more sources to choose from.

  • When you use AND, a database will look for resources that use all of the words you entered.
  • Use OR between words that mean the same or similar things, or that you are equally interested in.
     

PIVOT AS NEEDED
If you aren't finding much, try...

  • Rephrasing. See if you can find even 1 or 2 relevant articles, note what subjects are listed for them, and use these to try again.
  • Broadening your topic, date range, geographic area, etc. 
  • Switching tools. Sometimes you just need a different database! 

TRACE RESEARCH LEADS:

No piece of research stands alone; each is part of a broader scholarly conversation in that topic/ field. These resources have clues that you can TRACE, if you know how to look! 

Terms– Check the abstract, subject terms and article for concepts and terms that you can use for your future searches.

Reported in Is the journal where the article was printed relevant? Try searching for other articles from this journal.

Author What else has the author(s) published on this topic? Search the databases for their other publications

Consulted by 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.

Evidence -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

Tools for TRACE-ing: 

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. 

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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. 

History Librarian

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Jennifer Whelan
she/her/hers
MSLIS
Coordinator of Research & Information Literacy

Contact:
jwhelan@holycross.edu
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508-793-2254
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