Skip to Main Content

History 300: A Guide to Research: Getting Started

History 300 banner

Off-Campus Access to Resources

Are you accessing the library's online resources from off-campus? All you need to do is to sign in when prompted, with your blue card ID number. Your password will be the last four digits of your ID number, unless you've logged in before and specifically changed it.


User ID: 1234567

Password: 4567

Want to chat with a librarian?

If you need help getting started or getting unstuck, you can drop by the Library Welcome Desk any time for help or book a research appointment with a librarian for a one-on-one consultation.

CrashCourse: US History playlist

1963 Civil Rights March on Washington (Library of Congress Prints & Photographs)

1963 Civil Rights March on Washington (Library of Congress Prints & Photographs)

Topics & Research Questions

  1. Start with something that interests you. Extreme boredom will suck the fun out of researching and writing.
  2. Consider a topic that exemplifies a larger phenomenon. For instance, you may be following the current issues impacting reproductive rights in twenty-first century America and want to explore what reproductive freedom looked like in a different place and time.
  3. Consult reference sources -- such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases, chronologies, and handbooks -- to develop your understanding of the topic.
    • This is especially important in building a list of searching vocabulary (see the Search Terms tab in this box).

You will often begin by selecting a research topic, then defining a research question within this topic to investigate. What's the difference?

A simple topic is too broad. For example:

  • African Americans and the Civil War may be a broad topic that interests you, but this is not yet a question you can attempt to answer.
  • How did African American participation in the Union and Confederate armies change during the course of the war? is one example of a research question you might create from the previous topic. 

A research question must also not be too narrow.

  • How were African Americans participating in the Civil War in eastern Kentucky in June of 1864? is one example of a question which relates to the previous topic, but which is too narrow in scope to be reasonable.

As you explore scholarly secondary sources and historical primary sources, you may need to periodically re-evaluate your research question to ensure that it is neither too broad nor too narrow.

Robert C. Williams suggests that a research question might: 

  • "ask how or why an event happened (causation, explanation)"
  • "ask what the consequences were of a particular event"
  • "discuss the intellectual origins of a particular idea"
  • "ask what the cultural context of an event was";
  • "ask whether or not an individual was responsible for a certain act"
  • "ask about the social history of a political event"
  • "quantify broad trends in a society at a particular time" (52)

Source: Williams, Robert C. The Historian's Toolbox: A Student's Guide to the Theory and Craft of History. Second ed. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2007.

BEFORE you sit down at the computer to start searching for books, articles, and primary sources, take a moment to think about WHAT you will search for.

Write down key words
, phrases, names, and dates that might relate to your topic.

  • Think about synonyms or words with related meanings. For example, womenfemales, wives  
  • Think about historical language as well as modern. For instance, African American would not appear in 18th-century documents, so also list terms like blackcoloredNegro
  • Put phrases (multiple words that need to be together in a certain order) inside "quotation marks."

HOW do you come up with the words to write down?

  • Use your class textbook to help you get started.
  • Read encyclopedia entries about a related person, place, event, or concept to get ideas for more words. Instead of using Wikipedia for this, search Reference Universe from the Library.
  • Search the Historical Thesaurus of English to discover historical synonyms for modern words.
  • As you find primary and secondary sources, see what language they use, and add new terms to your list to help you refine additional searches.
  • Do a Google search to try and locate historical synonyms for the modern term you know.

Make notes about how these words and phrases relate to each other, using ANDOR, and NOT to connect ideas (see diagrams below).

  • Use OR to connect synonyms or words that could be interchanged: a source should have at least one. Example: cats OR felinesThis finds MOREsources than either word alone would find ("or gets you more!").
  • Use AND to connect separate ideas that need to co-exist; a source should have all. Example: "African Americans" AND "Civil War". This finds FEWERsources than either word alone would find.  
  • Use NOT to exclude irrelevant information that might be found by the same keywords. Example: cowboys NOT football. This finds FEWER sources than the first word alone would find.

 Venn diagram illustrating results of a Boolean search for cats OR felines

Venn diagram illustrating results of a Boolean search for African Americans AND Civil War

Venn diagram illustrating results of a Boolean search for cowboys NOT football