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
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...
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:
Need help selecting a database? Consult your professor, or a librarian!
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!
A 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.
|A first-hand witness to a historical event or period
|A second-hand witness who interprets first-hand information using later understanding of events
|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
|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.
|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
|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.
A 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.
|Usually staff writers and/or journalists
|Experts on the topic -- usually researchers, scholars and/or professors
|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
|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
|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:
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.