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History: Starting Your Research

If you are having trouble starting your historical research, follow these steps to get you headed in the right direction!

Videos and Tutorials

Use these videos and tutorials to learn how to start your research! 

Step One: Understanding Your Assignment

Understanding your assignment is the first step of the research process, and makes sure you know what you are trying to accomplish.

Be sure to read your assignment carefully, and more than one time. Use the following steps to break down your assignment:

  • Look for important words, especially verbs, to understand what type of writing is required. If you are unclear, ask your course instructor for clarification.
    • For example, are you being asked to "summarize" a topic, or to "analyze" that topic?
  • Identify the purpose of the paper, such as to persuade a reader, compare and contrast ideas, or summarize an author's viewpoint. This will help you figure out what kind of thesis you should create.
  • Identify the prompt's criteria, and stick to it! You don't want to write a 10-page persuasive essay when the assignment is only for a one-page summary. Look for things like how long your assignment should be, and what it should be about.

At the end of this step, you should be able to identify:

  • How long does your assignment need to be?
  • What topic(s) should you focus on?
  • What types of sources (primary, secondary, tertiary) should you use? How many?
  • What citation style should you use?
  • When is your assignment due?

Step Two: Write A Research Question

After you understand your assignment, you will want to write your research question. This is a multi-step process, during which you will identify what topic(s) you will want to focus on for your research. Creating a solid research question will help guide your searching, and make it much easier to write a thesis statement later on.

To develop a research question, follow these steps:

  • Choose an interesting general topic that fits within your assignment's requirements. Your topic does not need to be very specific at this stage, but you should be interested in it. Examples include: 
    • Slavery in the United States
    • the history of women's education
    • Indigenous peoples in Pennsylvania
  • Do some background research on your general topic using encyclopedias and scholarly literature to see what has already been done, and to help narrow your focus. What issues are other researchers discussing about your topic? What questions do you have after reading these sources?
  • Start asking open-ended questions about your general topic. Open-ended "how" or "why" questions can touch on topics you found interesting during your background research. Examples of these questions might include:
    • How were slave narratives used to support efforts to abolish slavery?
    • How and why was the history of women's education different in urban areas versus rural areas?
    • Why did the Paxton Massacres occur?
  • Evaluate your questions to determine whether they would be effective research questions, or whether they need to be revised and refined. Ask yourself:
    • Is your research question clear? Having a clear research question will help your narrow your research to only those sources relevant to your topic.
    • Is your research question focused? If your research question is too broad, you will have difficulty answering it thoroughly in the space requirements of your assignment.
    • Is your research question complex? Your question should not be answerable with a simple "yes" or "no", or with easily-found answers.
    • Is your research topic arguable? Your research question should be open to debate, rather than accepted facts.

Step Three: Begin Your Research

After writing your research question, you can begin your research! There are many different ways to start researching, but here are a few ways to start:

  • Identify the keywords in your research question. Keywords are the most important words and concepts within your research question; most often, they are nouns. You can use these keywords to start searching for primary sources and secondary sources. When using keywords, be sure to include synonyms in your searches!
  • Go back to your background research result to identify keywords, and to find what primary and secondary sources they mention. For example, many scholarly encyclopedia articles include links out to other sources, as well as lists of sources for further reading.
  • Once you have found a secondary source, use their citations as a roadmap to identify primary and secondary sources you might wish to consult. This is sometimes called "mining the bibliography."

Subject Librarian

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Frank Vitale
McNairy Library and Learning Forum, Room 802B
Subjects: History

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