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HIST 299: Wicked Women & Proud Patriarchs: Gender & Sexuality in Colonial Latin America (Abrahamson): Start Here: Strategies & Sources

Fall 2022

Research Strategies

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: 

Tracing the Conversation:

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: 

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‚Äč
  • 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! 

Evaluating & Selecting 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. 

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

Scholarly vs. Popular Sources:

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. However, because scholarly sources take a long time to be approved and published, they are not always good sources for current events.  

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

  POPULAR SCHOLARLY
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.  

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 

Questioning Your Sources: 

 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). 


 WHAT

What is the source? Is it a research report? An entertainment piece? An opinion essay? 
What is the domain extension? 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 published this resource?
Does the host/publisher have bias?  (Remember that a bias may not be directly stated.)

 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?

 

History Librarian

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

Contact:
jwhelan@holycross.edu
Dinand 203
508-793-2254
Website