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Getting Started with History

Historical research relies on a wide variety of sources, both primary & secondary, including unpublished material.

Primary Sources
First-hand testimonies from sources who witnessed or experienced an event firsthand.

  • Examples include: a letter, newspaper article, a photograph, a diary, or other ephemera from the time period being studied.
  • Found in public records & legal documents, minutes of meetings, corporate records, recordings, letters, diaries, journals, drawings.
  • Located in university archives, historical societies, and within private institutions or museums. 

Secondary or Scholarly Sources
These are the peer reviewed articles and scholarly books that historians write after they have worked with the primary sources and consulted other secondary articles or books.

  • Can be oral or written
  • Secondhand accounts of events
  • Found in textbooks, encyclopedias, journal articles, newspapers, biographies and other media such as films or tape recordings.

Strategic Searching

Before you start searching for resources, pause to think about what exactly you are searching for:

  • Write down key words, phrases, names, and dates that might relate to you topic. 
  • Brainstorm synonyms or words with related meanings.
  • Think about historical language as well as modern. How do you find historical terminology? Try searching the Oxford Historical Thesaurus, which is embedded in the Oxford English Dictionary tool.

magnifying glassPro tip: as you find primary and secondary sources, see what language they use, and add new terms to your list to help you refine additional searches!

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Schedule a Meeting with a Librarian

Have questions about the research process? Don't struggle, reach out to a librarian for help! Students interested in research support can book a meeting with a librarian to:

  • Narrow down research topic ideas
  • Find background information
  • Save time getting started with your research
  • Use the library’s collections as well as worldwide and web resources
  • Choose databases for discipline-focused research
  • Learn more efficient searching method

To make an appointment, reach out to a subject librarian specializing in your topic.