Research Guide and Methodologies Employed

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.