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HIST 300: Historical Research Methods

Resources for Historical Research methods.

Is it a scholarly book?

Many history books are written for the general public rather than scholars. A 'popular' history book isn't always inaccurate - but it may often take liberties in the name of entertainment. For example, popular history books may make up details of a conversation, or speculate on what is likely without providing solid sources. 

So how do you know if it's scholarly? There are two main clues: 

  1. Look at the publisher. Anything published by a University Press will be scholarly. 
  2. Look at the citations. A scholarly work will have many detailed citations, formatted in a consistent style such as Chicago/Turabian. Popular works will have no citations, vague citations that aren't attached to specific pieces of evidence (such as general 'notes' for a chapter, or a bibliography at the end of a book), or too few citations that don't always back up all their claims. 


Ask these questions to get a sense for whether your source is reliable:

  • Ask who is responsible for the information.
    Are they qualified to teach you? What are their qualifications? Do they have a name, and can you contact them? Why are they providing this information?

  • Ask whether the information can be verified.
    Do other sources agree? Are they providing citations so you can follow their research?

  • Ask how current the information is.
    Has the field of research changed significantly since the information was published? Does the research deal with all relevant discoveries or information? If the information is several years old, what holes might exist in the research? Can you fill these holes with other sources?

  • Ask whether the information is objective.
    Does it present both sides of an issue? Is it designed to persuade you? Does anything about the information seem fishy?

Primary Sources

Think about these questions when evaluating primary sources:

  • Ask who is responsible for the information.
    Who are they? What's their story? Are there things about their life, job, gender, location, or anything else that might impact what they're telling you?

  • Ask who the original audience was.
    Get a sense for why the information was created in the first place. Are you reading letters meant for someone's boss or someone's sweetheart? Is it a private journal or a public newsletter? Are they creating the information for their own benefit, or were they hired? What information might they include, remove, or be less than truthful about depending on the audience?

  • Ask whether other sources match.
    Can you find other primary sources that back up what you're seeing? If they differ, what are possible reasons for the differences? Use other sources to help you uncover biases and different points of view.