Research is the backbone of history. Without new and interesting research, history is simply repetition. But searching for information can be a daunting task.
There are two major kinds of sources in history: primary and secondary. To do any kind of thoughtful historical work, you will need to use both kinds of sources.
Primary sources are the original materials of history. They are the documents, pictures, etchings and recordings left by the people of the past.
Secondary sources are the interpretation of these materials. They are the histories that have been pieced together by previous historians which analyse, compare and present the evidence provided by the primary sources into a coherent narrative.
Historical research begins by understanding the secondary sources on the subject. By reading books, articles, or short papers on the topic, an historian builds an understanding of what research has been done, what interpretations of that topic have been proposed, and, by looking at the citations, where evidence on that subject maybe found.
Most historical works include a summary of this previous research. Called an "historiography," it maps out how the current research impacts past thinking on a topic. Historiographies are invaluable, as they trace what work has been done, and how it has impacted our unerstanding of the past.
Once you have an understanding of what research has been done, you can begin your own exploration of a topic. The historiographies will outline the major authors and works in a given field. Bibliographies will also provide clues as to which other secondary sources you should consult when looking at a given topic of interest. Libraries can usally provide you with most of the secondary sources on your subject, either through their own holdings or through interlibrary loan. Libraries (especially university libraries,) also have access to academic journal holdings, many of which can be accessed directly online.
The citations in secondary works also provide hints on where primary sources for a given topic can be found. Working backwards from the notes of a secondary work can often reveal collections of documents which you may not otherwise have found simply by searching the holding records of archives.
Primary source research can be a little more complicated. Primary sources are often held in archives or libraries, which often times can make them difficult to access.
Visiting an archives takes some planning. Most archives have a website which allow researches to search their collections before making a research trip. These help identify ahead of time the collections which you will want to consult, and make more efficient use of your time. If the archives does not have a searchable database, write to the archivists to find out if their collection can help you.
If you can search the holdings of an archives beforehand, it's a good idea to contact the archivists before you visit to find out about viewing procedures. Many archives require researches to register and obtain an ID card. Many archives also store their materials off-site, and it can take hours or days to have them retrieved. Planning your trip to take regisration and ordering times into account will make your research as easy as possible.
Tips for Archives:
- Spend some time exploring the website. There is no "template" for an archival website, and it can take some patience to figure out where the information you need is stored.
- When in doubt, ask. Contact the archives if you have any questions.
- Don't be fooled by the homepage. Archives often advertise their online exhibits and special collections more than the rest of their holdings. More resources can be found by using the search function or by clicking through a few links.
- Citations are your friend. Archives are organized like libraries - they assign numbers to records holding like call numbers are assigned to books. The fastest way to find what your looking for is to search by collection, and these are most easily found in the citations of secondary works.
Sources, both primary and secondary, can also be found online. See the sources page for some online resources.
- Do your homework. Before you go to an archives make sure the resources you want are available, find out about retreival times, the copying costs, laptop or digital photography policies, and access procedures.
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