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HIST 199: FYS History

Research guide for HIST 199: FYS History.


Primary and Secondary Sources

Historians use two principal kinds of materials: primary sources and secondary sources. 


Primary sources:

Primary sources are materials that serve as original evidence documenting a time period, an event, a work, people, or ideas. Examples include: newspaper articles, government documents, diaries, works of literature, photographs, oral histories, and more.


Secondary sources:

Secondary sources are information sources that provide interpretationanalysis, or commentary based on primary sources in order to provide understanding of a topic. For history, the two most common types of primary sources are scholarly books (monographs) and peer-reviewed articles. 


Background information:

Another type of source, sometimes called a tertiary source, is background information. Background information like encyclopedia articles can help you understand the context of a subject, but they are not typically materials to base your research papers on.


When considering the usefulness of a secondary source, you should think about the audience for whom the source was written. Was it written for a scholarly or popular audience?

The terms scholarly and popular do not necessarily judge the quality of the work or its accuracy. Rather they are judgments about the work’s stated content, intended audience, and presentation. The same criteria apply to a book, an article, or a website. 


Scholarly Popular
Written for professional historians Written for the non-professional reader
Written within the context of collective professional research and debate Context more likely to be current social or political issues
Description of methodology and intensive documentation Methodology and documentation are not foregrounded
Advances or revises knowledge Synthesizes and explains


Historiography & citations

A scholarly book will usually begin with the state of the research and lay out the history of the subject and discuss the various schools of opinion and controversies (historiography). A scholarly article will usually concentrate on one small aspect of a question or interpretation of a source, and will not survey the entire question. All scholarly works will have footnotes or references that document the sources the author has used to support the work’s argument. 

Peer Review

A scholarly book or article will go through the process of peer-review process in which several referees or reviewers – acknowledged experts in the subject – will look at the work before it is published. The referee’s role is to determine that the sources used are of high quality (and nothing has been overlooked), the methodology is sound, and the argumentation is rational. There is no guarantee that the referees will agree with the conclusions; the intention is not to stifle new interpretations, but to ensure quality of content.


One way to determine if something is scholarly or popular is to consider the publisher: university presses are more likely to publish scholarly than popular works, and there are several scholarly publishers that don't have "university press" in their name (such as Routledge). However, this method is not foolproof. Not all books published by university presses are scholarly ones. There are commercial publishers that specialize in scholarly works, too. 


How can you tell if a printed secondary work is scholarly or popular? 

Remember the criteria outlined above and look for the following points: 

  • Who is the author? What are their credentials?
  • Are statements backed up with documentation? 
  • Are the sources credited and can the reader reassemble the material to make an independent assessment of them?


Evaluating electronic resources

Electronic/internet resources should be evaluated in similar ways as the criteria outlined above. This guide from Georgetown University Library is useful and comprehensive.

Search strategies

Starting your research

 There are three ways of finding historical sources:

  • Browse
  • Follow citations
  • Use search tools developed for the purpose

Experienced historians use a combination of all three, but not necessarily in that order.

Browsing requires a lot of luck and serendipity. Try using the Library Catalogue to find a book assigned in your course, then scroll to the bottom to use the virtual Browse the Shelf feature. You can also try keyword searching in the catalogue or looking through recent issues of historical journals.

Following citations, sometimes called Citation Chaining or Footnote Mining, is one of the most common research techniques in history. After identifying a useful journal article or scholarly book (perhaps a course reading), look up the sources that author cited in their footnotes and bibliography. This will help you to identify the historiography of a particular subject, as well as potential primary sources.

Using search tools is the most consistently reliable way to find information on any subject, especially for new researchers. There are hundreds of indexes and catalogues for finding information about all subjects. McGill’s Library Catalogue and the two main history databases, America: History and Life and Historical Abstracts, are two important indexes you should use to find historical resources. Each index deals with different kinds of things and this guide will introduce you to some of them.

Why are there so many databases?

Every database and catalogue has strengths and weaknesses, based in large part on their scope. For example, the Library Catalogue is the best place to search for books and eBooks. America: History and Life and Historical Abstracts are the best place to search for scholarly articles, and each has a specific geographic and temporal focus. Overall: no search system is comprehensive, and all include biases.

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