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Tutt Library Research Guides


HY399 Studying History: Writing History Tips

Research for History

Writing, and Researching for History: A Guide for College Students (Brunswick, ME: Bowdoin College, 2004).

Preparing a research paper for a college-level history course:

  1. Find a historical problem worth addressing.
    1. By reading and comparing secondary history sources, such as monographs and journal articles.
    2. Simply finding relevant secondary materials requires its own particular set of skills in using the library:
      1. searching catalogs,
      2. accessing on-line databases,
      3. using interlibrary loan,
      4. how to pose questions to reference librarians.
    3. Reading these sources, determining their arguments, and putting them in conversation with each other constitute another broad set of skills which are enormously difficult to master.
  2. Find a set of primary historical sources which can actually address the question they have formulated.
    1. Array of skills in using the library:
      1. how to use the on-line library catalog,
      2. explore the stacks,
      3. learn to use special collections,
      4. travel to new libraries,
      5. interview informants
    2. This kind of primary source research demands a diligence and persistence rare in these days of easy Internet access.
  3. Put all this information together and actually produce knowledge.
    1. Craft a paper posing a clear historical problem and offer a thesis to address it.
    2. Work one's way through an argument without falling into common historical fallacies.
    3. Match evidence to argument, subordinate little ideas to big ones, and anticipate and pre-empt challenges to the argument.

The site includes many links covering how to accomplish these steps.



A good historian does not adopt a thesis until quite late on in the process of preparing a paper.

Always write in the past tense: this is, after all, history.

Start strongly. Usually the first paragraph should introduce the argument.

Marshall evidence to support your thesis.

Finish storng - the conclusion should reinforce the persuasiveness of your whole argument.

 Source criticism

1. Is your evidence a primary source or secondary source?

2. What are the author's sources? That is, what does he/she know, and how does he/she know it? If a primary source, was he/she an eyewitness?

3. Does your author acknowledge his/her sources?

4. Is the chronology accurate?

5. Is there evidence of bias in your author?

6. What assumptions does he/she make about the subject?

7. On what premises does he/she base the argument? Are they logical and consistent?

8. Is the information in your source corroborated elsewhere? Can you check the facts easily?

9. Why is your author writing -- ie, to inform, to persuade, to make an apologia?

10. Is your author aware of other viewpoints?


Research Process

(Patrick Rael, Bowdoin College)


The First Proposal

  • address the topic, the time period, and the major research questions to explore

Preliminary Research

  • what are the major secondary works
  • is my research project feasible?

Starting a Bibliography

organize by : chronology, theme, geography or typology

Project Assessment and Rewriting the proposal

  • Has another student or scholar already written my thesis?
  • Is the project feasible? 
  • What are the major and minor obstacles I will encounter during research?
  • How have scholars written about my topic?
  • Will I make an informational, methodological, or conceptual contribution?
  • Does a narrowed, expanded, or different periodization make more sense for my project?

Primary Sources

Annotated Bibliography (summary, informative, evaluative or combination)

The Research Proposal

  • introduction
  • research project
  • literature review
  • significance
  • methodoloy


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