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History 101 (Parkland College) Research Paper Guide

The purpose of this short guide is to help you find, as expeditiously as possible, the sources you will need for your History 101 research paper.

Finding Secondary Sources

Whether you have chosen to write the historiography or the research paper, you will need to use secondary sources.

Strategy #1: Use Encyclopedias

Encyclopedias attempt to summarize the state of knowledge in a given field of inquiry. (Encyclopedias are considered “tertiary sources”, not only to distinguish them from secondary sources, but also because they summarize the second source literature on a subject and are, in that sense, one more step removed from primary sources.) Encyclopedias have many valuable uses, and one of those is making it possible very quickly to locate the best secondary sources on a topic. Encyclopedia entries in a good encyclopedia are written by recognized experts on the subject of the entry, and will usually include a bibliography of recommended books and journal articles for further reading. Encyclopedias are therefore excellent tools for dealing with the information overload you are likely to confront when using an article database, online catalog, or some other federated search engine like Google Scholar: instead of sifting through hundreds or thousands of citations to articles on your topic, an encyclopedia entry will identify the handful of sources that an expert on the subject considers to be the best.

For this class, I recommend the following three encyclopedias:

Use these sources to narrow down your topic, or to select a topic that is likely to have a reasonably accessible source base.

The entries in these encyclopedias all include bibliographies. The entries in the bibliographies have been selected by experts.

Remember that encyclopedia entries are not historiographies. Although encyclopedias attempt to summarize, broadly, the current state of knowledge in a specific field of inquiry, they do not attempt to represent the different critical, methodological, or theoretical approaches to those topics.

Strategy #2: Use Bibliographies

We saw with encyclopedias how you can use bibliographies quickly to find secondary sources on your topic. In addition to bibliographies that accompany other published sources, there are also stand-alone, published bibliographies. Published bibliographies are among the most under used, and yet most valuable, tools for conducting historical research. For this class, I recommend:

  • Oxford Bibliography of the Classics: Covers the entirety of the Classical world, including history. Entries are compiled by experts, and heavily annotated. Some entries also list primary sources, making this bibliography an excellent place to find both secondary and primary sources.
  • Oxford Bibliography of Medieval Studies: Entries compiled by experts, and heavily annotated. As with the Oxford Bibliography of the Classics, some entries also list primary sources.

Strategy #3: Use Article Databases

Article databases are probably the most heavily used tools for finding secondary sources. There are both general article databases, which cover all disciplines, and subject-specific article databases. The term “article database” is somewhat misleading since most article databases provide access to much more than just journal articles (article databases will often identify books, book chapters, dissertations, conference proceedings, and other types of publications, most of which would qualify as secondary sources).

With article databases, you should be prepared to roll up your sleeves and really dig in. To use article databases successfully, you will often have to experiment with different keyword search strategies. It’s not at all uncommon for historians to review records for hundreds of articles before selecting a handful that best meet their needs.

For this class, I recommend:

  • Academic Search Complete (also available at Parkland using this link): A multi-disciplinary source for journal articles. One strategy: perform a broad keyword search, then use limiters such as “peer-reviewed” to focus in on more relevant results. Good for book reviews. Comparable to Google Scholar but with additional features.
  • JSTOR: The full text of over 1,500 scholarly journals, with coverage back to the first issue for each, in some cases as far back as the 17th century. Recent issues of most journals in this database are embargoed by journal publishers, so to be certain you are also identifying the most recent publications, use an article index like Historical Abstracts .

There are also discipline specific article databases for historical research. One of the most widely used is:

  • Historical Abstracts: Use Historical Abstracts to identify journal articles, book reviews, dissertations, and books on all aspects of world history (excluding North America) from 1450 to the present.

Please note that Historical Abstracts only covers European history back to 1450. To locate secondary sources about medieval or ancient European history, you’ll need to use either a general article database like JSTOR or Academic Search Complete (listed above), or else one of the article databases specifically designed for ancient and medieval European history. The article databases specifically designed for ancient and medieval European history tend to be very difficult to use, and I would recommend instead using a general article database, an encyclopedia, or a bibliography for topics on ancient or medieval European history.

Strategy #4: Use the Online Catalog

A fourth place to search for secondary sources:

Use the Online Catalog to find books.

Finding Primary Sources

There is no one place to search for primary sources, since almost any document can be a primary source (even those you discover while searching for secondary sources). A primary source is a primary source if you use it as one, as your instructor has probably explained already.

Strategy #1: Use Digitized Source Collections

A good place to look for primary sources that are available online (most of these have been digitized from print originals) is:

This guide lists all the digital collections at the University of Illinois, and is organized by broad subject.

Strategy #2: Follow Bibliographic Trails

Another strategy for finding primary sources is to go back to your secondary sources and see what sources, or what kinds of sources, the scholars who have already worked on this topic used or tend to use. This strategy would also include using published bibliographies, as described above in the section on using bibliographies to locate secondary sources.

Strategy #3: Look for Published Primary Sources in the Online Catalog

Some publishers compile primary source documents and publish them as books, book sets, or microfilm sets. To find these publications, watch for the following subject heading sub-divisions when browsing subject headings in the Online Catalog:

  • Correspondence
  • Sources
  • Diaries
  • Personal narratives
  • Interviews
  • Speeches
  • Documents
  • Archives
  • Early works to 1800
  • Case studies


Please do not hesitate to contact me with any questions: Geoffrey Ross | (217) 333-1509 | gtross@illinois.edu