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Conducting History Research

Updated on April 12, 2014

Researching History Topics


Steps for Researching a History Topic

At some point, we all have to do some history research. Whether it's a three page paper in high school or a fifty page research paper in college, the steps for researching a history topic are the same. If you want to get a good grade, or get published, you need to have good research. To do that, you'll need to follow these steps:

  1. Identify a topic of interest to you.
  2. Read a good overview of the topic.
  3. Find original, primary sources.
  4. Take notes and keep them organized.
  5. Think about what you've read.
  6. Put it all together.

Identify a topic of interest

Sometimes you won't be able to make this choice. Teachers, especially in high school, like to assign topics. But either way you need to find something interesting about the topic. Let's say you hate sports, but you have to write a paper about the history of hockey. Maybe you like human-interest stories about overcoming insurmountable odds. Or maybe you like learning about wars. Whatever you're interested in, let that be your angle. If your interest lies in overcoming insurmountable odds, chances are your paper will focus on individual players or teams that overcame injuries, poverty, or remarkable circumstances to succeed. If your interest lies in wars, you could write about hockey players who volunteered (or were drafted) to fight for Canada and the United States in World War II.

If you can choose a topic, you're in better shape because the world is your oyster. History is everything. There are books about everything from World War II to Ancient Rome to salt. Yes. I wrote 'salt.' As long as your topic fits into the context of your assignment, you can write about anything.

Read a good overview of your topic

This step is especially important if your history research paper topic is new to you. Contrary to popular belief, Wikipedia is a good resource for this step. It's not perfect, and you have to be careful, but I know many people, including actual professional historians, who start off using Wikipedia. The point is not to use it as a source for your history research, but to give you an understanding of the general order of events, causation, and the key players of your topic. Once you do this, you'll be better equipped to understand the next few steps for your history research.

I need to emphasize how important it is to use Wikipedia sparingly. Do not use it as a source for your paper unless your teacher allows it. It's generally frowned upon and can sometimes be inaccurate. And Wikipedia almost always lacks the depth needed to really draw any conclusions for a history paper in which you need to argue a point. At this point you should be getting some ideas for a thesis. That is, your argument. What are you noticing about what you're reading? With a little luck and deep thought you should be forming an opinion. What was the experience like for World War II soldiers. Were things worse or better than you expected? I'll cover creating a thesis in another hub, but for now just think of it as your argument and the whole point of your paper. What are you trying to prove?

Find original, primary sources

What is a primary source, you ask? All quality history research is based on primary research. That means, instead of reading a book about the experience of soldiers in World War II, you would go find the letters written by soldiers. Or service records. Or battlefield reports. Anything eye-witness is considered a primary source. In many cases newspaper articles also count as primary sources. This is because they are sometimes eyewitness, but even when they're not they still present a "fresh" perspective of people living through the events being described.

The importance of primary sources is this: you will get as close as you possibly can to the original event or person, without someone else's opinions coloring your information. Historians are not perfect. They make mistakes, even in the biggest, most profoundly researched history book on the market. They have biases and interpretations. For instance, the book The South vs The South by David Freehling outlines divisions within the Confederacy during the American Civil War. His primary focus is to show the reader how divided the Confederacy was throughout the entire war. He does not rely on much evidence to show how united the South was. Yet on the same topic, another author, Gary Gallagher, frequently articulates the point of view that for much of the war, the Confederacy was united. Even historians don't agree on anything.

So make up your own mind. If you want a good history research paper you need to draw your own conclusions. You can find primary sources in a variety of locations:

  • Online: Google searches,, topical websites, etc.
  • Libraries: local libraries, regional research libraries, etc.
  • Government offices: Register of Deeds, County Clerk, etc.
  • Archives
  • Personal Interviews (If the topic is recent, but be careful, people's memories are fragile and often incorrect, so don't take their statements at face value always)
  • Historical Societies and Topical Interest Groups

Take notes and keep them organized

This is a "flexible" step in conducting good history research. Everyone has a different process. What most people use are notecards, or software like Evernote, to take notes and keep them organized. Evernote is handy because you can search your notes later by keyword, or organize them by topic. You can also keep a handy list of sources you utilized. Remember: always record where your information comes from! You must source your information and prove where you found your information. Plagiarizing is wrong, even if you are only paraphrasing what someone else wrote.

If you would rather use a notebook or index cards, keep them properly labeled. Make sure you keep track of anything you're quoting from another person's resources. Label your cards according to topic, people involved, or any criteria you think is relevant to your project.

Think about what you've read

You're a reasonably intelligent person, right? So you've got all this information. Let's use the example of soldiers in World War II. You've got some letters, service records, some firsthand battle accounts, and you think you know what happened and why. Take a day or so to think about it. Just think.

Did you miss anything? Do you notice anything that you expected to find that you didn't? Maybe the soldiers never mentioned the food they ate in their letters. That could be something relevant to their overall health and morale. Do another sweep for primary or secondary sources to see if this is mentioned anywhere else.

This step is pretty basic. Assess what you've learned and what it all means. Information that is omitted by sources is sometimes more important than what they chose to include in their accounts.

Put it all together

Your notes are organized, you've properly sourced everything, and you've thought about your topic. What are you going to say about it? What did your research teach you? Maybe soldiers didn't have it so bad during the Battle of Iwo Jima. Or maybe they had it worse than you thought. Anything like this can formulate your thesis. Your thesis is the entire point of your paper. What are you trying to prove? From here on out it's up to your writing skills to combine all your information into a coherent argument.

Depending on if you're researching history for high school or college, the rigorousness of each step will vary. But if you follow all of them you will have a strong foundation for your paper and you can expect to get a good grade.

Now that you have a stronger understanding of historical research, get out there and dig up some old documents!

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