Why Writing Works

Disciplinary Approaches to Composing Texts

Research in History

by Dr. Anita Gaul

The ability to conduct research and present one’s findings in writing are important skills in the field of history. Being an historian and conducting research is like being a detective – not a crime detective, but a history detective.

Develop a topic

A crime detective begins with a question, usually “Who did it?” Historians begin with a question, too. It is important to begin one’s research with a good question, one that is not too broad, but also not too narrow. For example, the question “Did women support American involvement in World War I?” is far too broad. It is beyond your ability to research whether women around the world or even in the United States were in favor of the war. On the other hand, the question “Did the women in my family support American involvement in World War I?” is too narrow. You will probably not find enough evidence to write an entire paper explaining what the women in your particular family thought about World War I. For an undergraduate historical research paper, a far more manageable question would be: “Did the women in my hometown support American involvement in World War I?”

It is also important to formulate a question that you don’t already know the answer to and are able to approach with an open mind. You must – to the best of your ability – conduct your research objectively. Let the research guide you; do not manipulate the details you find in your research to conform to or affirm a pre-determined answer. Keeping with the hypothetical research question previously posed, you must conduct your research not already thinking that the women in your hometown supported the war. Approach the topic with an open mind, looking for any piece of evidence that speaks to what women thought or felt about the war. Let the evidence tell you the answer to your question.

Conduct the research

The next step is to consult the secondary sources on your topic. This is the work scholars have already published in this area. You probably will not find many (or any) secondary sources about women in your particular hometown, but you will find books and journal articles that speak more generally to the views of American women on World War I or to the views of women living in your state or region. It is helpful to read these secondary sources, not only to provide context for your topic, but also to check the bibliography and footnotes in these works to see what sources and types of evidence were used.

Once you have consulted the secondary sources, you need to figure out where to find the evidence to answer your specific research question. In many ways, this is like a detective looking for clues. A crime detective looks for clues to solve a crime. An historian looks for “clues” to solve the historical question under consideration. There could be clues in any number of places: libraries, museums, historical societies, government documents, archival collections, court records, oral interviews, etc. You will need to consult the catalogs and databases of many different institutions and collections in order to determine what sources are available and accessible.

The best and most valuable clues/evidence in the field of history are found in primary sources. What is a primary source? A primary source is a source of information that provides a first-hand or eyewitness account of an event or was written during the time period under investigation. Primary sources include letters, newspapers, diaries and journals, court documents, financial records, and photographs.

Locating and accessing primary sources often requires an historian to do field work: going to archives, handling delicate materials, etc. Some archival repositories require researchers to wear gloves when working with fragile documents. Just like a crime detective cannot mishandle the evidence, an historian cannot damage the primary sources.

When considering the ongoing example of women’s views of World War I, a good place to start looking for primary sources would be the historical society or museum in your hometown or region. Check those archives and collections to see what documents and records they have. Another possible source of clues would be the collections of your state historical society. Also check the newspaper published in your hometown or region during the war years.

As you can tell, good historical research takes a lot of time and careful reading. You will probably have to look through many files of old papers and documents. You may have to read through several years of old newspapers. A good crime detective conducts a thorough and careful investigation, pursuing every lead and clue in their quest to solve the crime. Likewise, a good historian conducts a thorough and careful investigation, checking every available source and consulting all possible repositories of evidence.

Determining credibility of sources 

Primary sources also need to be approached with a critical eye. When evaluating a primary source, it is important to assess its credibility and reliability. You need to think about whether the author was in a position to know what they were talking about. To do this, keep some key questions in mind:

  1. When was this document written? What was the historical context in which it was created? What was happening at that time and place that may have affected what the author wrote?
  2. Who was the author of this document and what was their purpose in writing it? Would the author have any particular biases that may have affected what they wrote?
  3. What information does the author include? What information does the author not include, and why might this be?
  4. What is the format of this document? Was this document published or not? Who was the intended audience? How do you think this document was received by its intended audience?
  5. How does this source compare to others you have read on this topic?

Once you have consulted all possible leads, clues, and pieces of evidence, carefully evaluate them to see what they “say” to you regarding the research question you posed at the beginning. Let the evidence guide your answer, then write your research paper accordingly.