Working with Historical Sources

Historical sources come in a wide variety of styles and formats, and are generally divided by historians into two types – primary and secondary. Each is further distinguished and explored on the following pages, but we may take a moment to consider the importance of taking notes and keeping track of your findings during the investigative phase of your writing assignment. This is the equivalent of building a case-file for the defence of your argument. The following tips will be of some assistance when conducting your research investigation.

Start early, and you will have much greater success in finding what you are looking for. A university library’s sources are placed under considerable strain when the end of term approaches, and you may find your topic was more popular than you realized. Don’t delay the start of your research – examine the library’s catalogue online if possible, and keep track of what you discover. This will save time hunting through the stacks, and if a potentially valuable source is on loan, you can request that it be held for you when it is returned by another patron. In addition, if you find titles for sources not available in any UBC library, you can request that they be sent to UBC via Interlibrary Loan.

Speak with your instructor or TA, and she or he will undoubtedly have some suggested reading suitable for your research. If you have further questions about the material you find in these sources, do not hesitate to bring them to your instructor’s attention. Examine authors’ bibliographies for further sources. If you find a particularly valuable secondary source, the author or authors will have listed their own sources for your information. The disclosure and citation of sources is a fundamental part of the discipline of history at every level, and the bibliographies of many works will yield a wealth of titles for additional reading. Some may be very obscure primary sources, or even private interviews and manuscripts, but more common secondary sources will often be found in most university libraries. Consult these bibliographies carefully. They often provide valuable clues.

Taking notes as you examine your sources is a vital component of the research process, and they will be of immense value as you stitch the major points of your argument together. When reading, note down any major findings, authors, or quotations that you find which are of value to your central thesis. Take the time to note authors’ names, page numbers, and the substantive details of their arguments. Some sources cover a wide era or a series of diverse topics. In these cases, each individual part or chapter of a monograph or an edited volume may have its own argument, and may draw a series of  specific conclusions. Keep track of where the author or authors are headed. If the argument appears to be irrelevant to your investigation, you may consider using another source instead. Also, please refrain from writing in or otherwise defacing your university’s resources. Explicit and legible notes should only be taken down in a separate notebook.