Research Guide

Research Guide

History is collective and individual memory. An understanding of the past gives an individual perspective and insight into the world in which we live, and presents students with the range of ways in which humans have lived their lives. Studying history teaches a student to analyze the context in which people make choices and gives an awareness of the consequences of those choices. In addition, historical study deepens a number of specific skills that are invaluable assets for graduates entering the workforce, such as the ability to engage in research and to evaluate evidence, as well as how to present conclusions in a reasoned and coherent way.

See also: Library Subject Research Guides

Analyzing Primary Sources

Historians mainly base their interpretations of the past on primary sources. Primary sources are sources produced in the time period under study. Primary sources can vary from written documents to material sources and even oral sources for those who have access to interviews. The process of interpreting evidence from a primary source first requires an assessment of its basic components. You must ask yourself the following questions :


  • Who wrote or produced the source?
  • Was it an individual or a group? If it was an individual, the historian must attempt to approximate this person’s position, status, occupation, religion, political leanings, ethnicity, gender, education; in short, any factors that might help to explain the author’s intent. The same applies to group-authored sources, except that the group’s composition as well as the cultural and political space it occupies in society can also yield clues to authorial intent.


  • What specific type of source is it? Certain types of documents or materials are produced based on specific rhetorical, linguistic, and stylistic formats. The source format can alert the historian to the type of evidence that might be found.


  • When was the source written or produced? The time between when the event under study occurred and when the source was produced might make a difference in how the historian approaches it. For example, war chronicles were often written many years after the fact. The same can be said of saints’ hagiographies. As memory fades, authors attempt to put the best spin on events, the veracity of such accounts might come into question.
  • What was happening when the document was written? What is the social, political, and economic context of the document?
  • How might contemporary events have affected the author?


  • Where was the source written or produced? Location another means of putting the source in context. The location where the author produced a document and that location’s political and socio-economic situation can provide valuable clues to a historian attempting to dissect a specific source.


  • Why, or what was the purpose behind the source? All authors have an intent or an agenda that shapes the tone and content of a document. Unravelling the possible motives behind a source is crucial to assessing how the evidence it presents must be treated.
  • Can we rely on a specific document to gives us a factual account of an event?
  • Are there unspoken assumptions in the document?
  • Does the narrative construction of a source provide clues to authorial intent and the mentality of the time?
  • By trying to comprehend the motive behind the source, a researcher will often find new questions, concerns, and opportunities that must be evaluated accordingly.

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Analyzing Secondary Sources

A secondary source is the product of the process described above, once the historian has analyzed his or her primary sources, arrived to certain conclusions, and written and published the findings. A secondary source constitutes an interpretation of a past event, process, or structure based on an analysis of primary sources. Although the format and the quality of secondary sources varies greatly, historians will usually focus on articles in academic journals and historical monographs published by academic or reputable commercial presses. When reading secondary sources, attention must be paid to the following:


  • What is the author’s thesis? What is the author’s main idea that he or she is trying to defend? An author can have two or three main theses, often with sub theses supporting the main propositions. The thesis should be clearly stated in the introduction.


  • How successful is the author in defending the thesis? A critical reading of the secondary source is crucial. By simply assessing how the evidence supporting the thesis is presented, an informed and logical reader can critically evaluate the secondary source. A variety of strategies may prove useful in this regard.
  • What evidence does the author use to support their thesis?
  • Is there a logical connection between the evidence presented and the author’s conclusion?
  • Does the author provide enough instances of evidence to support the thesis?
  • Are other types of evidence that may have been overlooked?
  • How does the author respond to differing interpretations from other historians?


  • What does the secondary source contribute to historical knowledge? This question not only requires a careful assessment of the secondary source itself, reading of other secondary sources that discuss the same theme. In doing so, a historian will find the points of contention, departure, and debate between those who have investigated a certain topic.
    Remember that secondary sources are interpretations of the past, and that the above questions help the historian to critically assess a secondary source, and ultimately determine its value.

How to Write an Essay

Essay writing is a crucial part of any student’s historical training. You may be asked to write on different topics and themes in a wide range of formats. Because we can approach historical problems from many perspectives, the types of questions that direct your essays will vary. Nevertheless, all historical essays share some basic structural factors:

  • an introduction with a clear thesis statement
  • the body of the essay
  • a conclusion
  • outside of tests and exams, footnotes or endnotes

The outline: Before starting to write the essay, it is best to have at minimum a rudimentary outline to guide you. Your outline should identify your thesis statement and the main points and evidence that will support it, organized logically.

The introduction: Your introduction should usually be no longer than one paragraph and should attempt to guide the reader into the question at hand by doing the following:

  • Focus your attention on the topic at hand, either through a general comment about its relevance, or a specific example designed to draw the interest of the reader. Regardless, the point is to draw the reader into the topic.
  • Narrow the introduction into the question that will be discussed in your essay
  • Provide the argument—also known as a thesis statement— you will be developing in the rest of the essay. The thesis statement should almost invariably be the last one or two sentences in your introduction.

The body of the essay: The body will consist of as many paragraphs as there are main points supporting the thesis statement. You should think of each paragraph as a building block in the argument supporting your thesis. Even if you have multiple sub theses, these building blocks should be logically sound and support your larger thesis. Follow these steps:

  • Begin with a topic sentence stating the major premise the paragraph will discuss. Although it might seem counterintuitive to write with topic sentences, they provide a signpost to the reader and are crucial in ensuring that you stay on topic.
  • Expound the specific evidence supporting the premise. For evidence, you may draw from well-known facts, secondary, and primary sources. If you come across evidence in your readings that appears to contradict your argument, you still need to pay attention to it. In fact, it is a sign of a strong essay if the writer discusses and refutes secondary material, interpretations, and even primary source material that pose views and opinions that might originally appear to contradict or weaken the author’s thesis.
  • Continue by demonstrating the validity of the thesis through various premises supported with primary and secondary evidence.

The conclusion: This conclusion should briefly recap the arguments and provide the reader with a sense of the implications that the study presents.

  • Start with a narrow focus on the essay’s main arguments
  • Move into a wider focus that may include historiographical and/or methodological implications.


Historians generally use Chicago style citations. Citations and bibliographies must consist of all works used in the essay. Those from which you have quoted obviously must be included, but so must other titles that you have consulted in preparation for the essay. The proper bibliographic style is given in the following examples. Titles may be underlined or italicized.


For a book:
McNeill, William. Plagues and Peoples New York: Anchor 1976.

For an article in a scholarly journal:
MacCulloch, Diarmaid. “The Myth of the English Reformation” Journal of British Studies. XXX:1 (Spring, 1991): 1-19.

For an article/chapter in a collection of essays:
Furet, Francois. “The French Revolution is Over” In The French Revolution and Intellectual History, edited by J.R. Censer.  Chicago: The Dorsey Press 1989

For a website:
Miller, Geoffrey. “The Battle of Third Ypres (Passchendaele)” <> (November 1993)


Consecutively numbered footnotes at the bottom of each page or endnotes at the end of the text and before the bibliography must be used in essays. Because historians generally use Chicago style, brackets within the text, e.g. (Smith, 1990, p. 45) are NOT ACCEPTABLE.

For the first use of a work, complete author/title/publication place and date/page number(s) are furnished, e.g.:

3W. Bruce Lincoln, Passage through Armageddon: the Russians in War and Revolution 1914-1918 (New York, 1986), p. 338.

If the VERY NEXT reference is to the same work:

4Ibid., pp. 342-343.

If, however, the work is cited more than once, but with another title intervening, one uses a “short titleformat for the second reference, and for subsequent references if they do not immediately follow, in which case Ibid. is used once more:

7Lincoln, Passage through Armageddon, p. 356.

Citations for articles in scholarly journals and for chapters in an edited work follow similar styles:

11Barbara Engel, “Peasant Morality and Pre-Marital Relations in Late 19th Century Russia”, Journal of Social History XXIII: 4 (Summer, 1990), pp. 698-699.

“Short title” format:

15Engel, “Peasant Morality”, p. 701.

For a chapter in a collection of essays:

17Perez Zagorin, “The Leveller Theorists: Lilburne, Overton and Walwyn”, in W. Owens, ed., Seventeenth-Century Studies (New York, 1981), p. 169.

“Short title” format:

21Zagorin, “Leveller Theorists”, pp. 172-173.

For a website:

26Geoffrey Miller, “The Battle of Third Ypres (Passchendaele)”, <> (November 1993).

“Short title” format:

29Miller, “Battle of Third Ypres”.

For any questions, please consult the Chicago Manual of Style. The library has the 15th edition (2003) in the reference section. The call number is Z 253 .C48 2003.

You can also use the online citation guide:

Term Paper Checklist

Use this checklist to ensure the format and style of your paper conforms to departmental standards. ALWAYS proofread the entire document for grammar, spelling, and appropriate word choices. Failure to conform to these format guidelines may result in grade penalties.


  • Separate title page that includes a title that alludes to the thesis of the paper. Name of student should also be included in the title page.
  • Do no repeat the information on the title page on the first page of the essay.
  • Pages should be numbered, and pagination should not include the title page.
  • Paper should be typed and double spaced, with 12 point font.
  • Margins should be set at 1″ on the left, right, top and bottom. There should be no extra spaces between paragraphs.

Clarity and Citations

  • Use the past tense when writing about past events.
  • The introduction should cover all the “journalistic questions”: who, what, where, when, why, how?
  • Do not confuse there/their; were/where; then/than; led/lead; its/it’s; whether/weather.
  • Attribute each quote in the text so that the reader can consider the source of the quotation. An example of this: Gerald of Wales noted that “x, y, and z” instead of simply “x, y, and z.”
  • Failure to cite sources such as texts, document extracts, secondary materials, or any others may result in a failing mark for the assignment.
  • Use footnotes to show where evidence and ideas originate. Every example has a footnote.
  • Do not plagiarize. Do not simply read a section of text and change a few words to make it your own. If a paraphrase does not include a citation, it is considered plagiarism.