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HIST 245: Imperial Russia/East & West (Hooper): Start Here: Strategies & Sources

Fall 2022

History Librarian

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Jennifer Whelan
Coordinator of Research & Information Literacy

Dinand 203

Research Strategies

General Research Strategies:


Be realistic about the size of the topic that you can tackle. Consider the limitations of your timeline and assignment requirements. It's better to address a focused topic well than to address a broader topic poorly because you are trying to cover too much material.



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 be outside the walls of Dinand Library.



Be efficient. Use the strategies we will discuss in class (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. 

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 the London Blitz, 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 1940-1941. 

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

Review: Choosing Appropriate Sources

The Information Lifecycle:

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

Note that this timeline is just a general sense of the information lifecycle -- the exact timing can vary greatly from one discipline to another! 

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

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

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 

Scholarly & Popular Sources

During your time at Holy Cross, you may find yourself using a combination of both popular and scholarly sources. 

popular resource is a resource for 'popular' consumption -- it has been written so that most people can easily read and understand it. This might include newspapers or magazines, some books, and some journals written for people in specific jobs. While there is usually an editor who checks these sources for good writing and for errors, this is mostly done by a single person rather than a group. Popular articles are usually written by journalists or professional writers, although sometimes they are written by experts on a specific topic. 

Scholarly sources are written by experts on a particular subject (for example, a professor or other researcher). They also go through an extra process of review and approval by a group of other experts before they can be published. Usually, scholarly articles are written in 'academic-ese' and designed to be read by other scholars. You will probably find yourself using many scholarly sources in your other Holy Cross classes. However, because scholarly sources take a long time to be approved and published, they are not good sources for current news. You can explore the parts of a scholarly article through an interactive diagram created by the NC State Libraries

How can you tell if you have a scholarly article in your hand? 
The chart below compares the characteristics of scholarly vs. popular (non-scholarly) sources:  Handout version of popular vs. scholarly source chart; click to enlarge

Author Usually staff writers and/or journalists Experts on the topic -- usually researchers, scholars and/or professors
Audience General public (for "popular" consumption) Other experts (and students) in the field
Editing & Review Editor(s); generally concerned with grammar, style, etc., with some fact-checking Other experts ("peer reviewed"); generally concerned with quality, thoroughness of research, strength of argument, etc. 
Style & Design

Reasonably brief, typically uses colloquial if not informal language. Often illustrated with graphics, sidebars and other aesthetic elements. Sometimes accompanied by ads.

More extensive in length; tends to be more formal and uses specialized vocabulary. Illustrations and charts are used only when furthering content. 
Goal or Purpose To entertain; and/or, to share general information To share findings, advance and argument and/or engage with other scholars
Sources Few or none; if sources are used, there may not be formal citations.  Typically uses many sources, cited in detailed bibliographies, footnotes and/or endnotes
Examples Time Magazine; Sports Illustrated; New Yorker; Boston Globe Annual Review of Political Science; American Historical Review; Sociology of Education

It's important to keep in mind that scholarly sources are not always the best or only source available to you -- it depends on what information you are trying to find:

  • Due to the time required for a scholarly article to be researched, written, go through the peer review process and then be published, it can be difficult to find scholarly articles published about recent events, discoveries, etc.. You should expect 1-2 years between the time an event occurs and the time academic research on that event begins to be published, with some exceptions. 
  • For matters related to policy, official government documents are also good sources of information that may not be available in peer-reviewed formats. 
  • News articles, correspondence and other 'primary sources' can also provide useful insights, again depending on your topic.  

Questioning Your Sources: 


 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 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)? 


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

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


 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 how reputable a website is. For example, .gov is the domain for United States government sites and .edu is for US Educational institutuions. 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. 


 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? 



 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?

Be wary of any source which does not reference sources, especially when it contains information that clearly or at least likely originated somewhere else. First, failing to cite sources is unethical, and reflects poorly on the author(s)! Second, without knowing the original source, you can't adequately evaluate the weaknesses and/or biases of the information, or know if it is even being represented faithfully in the "secondary" source.