How to Research a History Paper

Writing for history involves using sources, carefully citing what the sources are saying, and writing a clear and organized paper. This first article in a series on how to write a history paper explores finding and evaluating sources in history. By learning as much as possible about the assignment, finding sources, evaluating them, and taking source notes one creates a solid foundation for writing a paper.

Find Out About the Assignment

Make certain you know what the assignment is before you actually begin looking for sources. Knowing what the professor is looking for will save time and your grade. Here are some examples to ask yourself before beginning to think about writing a history paper.

  • 1. What is the topic of the paper?
  • 2. How long is the paper?
  • 3. What citation method does the professor prefer?
  • 4. Does the professor have specific sources he/she would like you to use?

Use Professor or Instructor as a Resource

If you cannot answer the above questions, dig out the syllabus or ask the course instructor. Standing out in class or bothering the professor may seem intimidating, but the professor is a resource, just like any book, and indeed much more useful because he/she grades your work. In addition, creating relationships with professors outside of hearing them in class is an important networking tool. Some may even end up being cool.

Be wary of doing too much research without actually having a topic. This can be frustrating and time consuming, to say the least. Have an idea of what the paper will be about before beginning any research, and run the idea by someone else, or better yet the professor, to make sure it makes sense to them.

Finding Sources for History Writing

Once you know exactly what the paper is about, it is time to begin researching. History sources come in two types, primary and secondary sources. Check the assignment requirements to see which types the assignment requires.

Plan on at least two history sources per page of an undergraduate paper. For example, a five page paper needs at least ten sources. Do not use too many sources, as they can make it harder to write and synthesize the information.
Texts used in a course or suggested on a syllabus are also good starting points. These sources can be invaluable as they contain bibliographic information about other sources. A bibliography is a list of sources the author used in compiling that work.

For example, a general American history text will contain specific sources the section author used that are more specific than the general history textbook. If one is researching Osage Indians in Kansas, looking up “Osage Indians” in a course textbook’s index can bring up more specific sources. Finding those sources at the library or online equals credible sources for paper use.

If the paper requires more than the sources already in use for the class, a trip to the university’s library in person or on line may be necessary. Many university libraries have their card catalog of print resources (anything you can hold in your hands) and online resources (anything found through a computer) available for students through their websites.

Online Research for Undergraduate History Papers

Researching history paper using search engines such as Yahoo and Google is inadvisable, as many online resources are not academically credible. Begin online through an academic library’s homepage for online academic resources such as databases, virtual books, and online topic guides written by librarians and other professional researchers.

Using Online Databases

Many university libraries pay huge subscription fees for online databases of scholarly articles in topics such as history for their students to use. Some online databases, such as JSTOR and EbscoHost, provide full text scholarly journal articles. These are articles written by academics and sound, credible sources.

A full-text article means that the text of the article is available online for you to read, from the comfort of your own home, through the university library’s website. Other databases may just include a citation, or the information to find the article in a book. Ask a librarian for assistance in finding a source if it becomes complicated.

Researching, online or in the library, can become frustrating if a certain source ends up not working, or if one cannot find the right article. Librarians are highly trained professionals and are able to answer questions and give feedback on sources, though they are not going to write your paper for you. Take frequent breaks, plan ahead of time, and be patient to avoid research burn out.

Preparing Sources for Paper Writing

Once you have found a credible source that fits your topic, scan the book for the information you want, using the table of contents or the index. Mark those pages for future reference.

Better yet, take the time to type the notes of interest to you, including the page number, book or article, and author. Begin a page for each source, and keep a record. Typing up these notes or copy and pasting them to Word when you are ready to write saves time and the hassle of flipping through books between paragraphs looking for the right phrase.

Writing a history paper is hard work, but it does not have to be a nightmare. Carefully learning about the assignment requirements, evaluating sources, and taking notes can make writing a history paper much easier.