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HIST 3243: Writing and Research for Historians

Guide to assist students in HIST 3243 -Writing and Research for Historians.

Whenever you have a basic information need, you are likely to quickly type your query into Google and find a straightforward answer (such as looking up an address). This kind of research is very linear, but scholarly research is much different. 

Scholarly research involves more steps and is cyclical rather than linear. Once you select a topic for a research assignment and begin searching, you may find yourself constantly refining your topic or thesis. Throughout the research process, you may revisit previous steps again and again as you revise your topic. 

History Research

Getting Started

Depending on your assignment, you may be given a research topic or you may get to choose your own. If you're choosing your own and need an idea, here are some places to look for topic inspiration:

  • Class discussions
  • Encyclopedias 
  • Assigned readings
  • Personal interests
  • Current events 

Once you've selected an idea for your research topic, now you need to Clarify some information. This is the brainstorming step of the research cycle. Think about the following questions:

  1. What do you already know?
  2. What do you need to know?
  3. What kind of information do you need? For example, do you need data and statistics, scientific studies, personal accounts, etc. 
  4. Who is the information for? Who is your audience?
  5. What are some basic keywords for your topic?

After you've clarified what you're searching for and made a list of search terms, it's time to start background research! At this point you aren't trying to do in-depth research, but instead find general information and find additional key words or fill any gaps in your knowledge. You may still have questions about your topic or haven't refined your thesis yet, but that's okay! As you search you may find more information and edit your topic or focus. Be sure to look at a variety of online sources to get a complete picture of your topic and a path forward with your research.

Wikipedia is a great place to start reading up on your topic, however you NEVER want to use information directly from Wikipedia! Instead, look at the bottom of a Wikipedia article and look at the sources referenced. There may be a reliable source that you can read for yourself!

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.

Search Strategies

Did you know that when you enter an entire sentence into Google it searches each.. word.. individually? That's why you get millions of results back! Luckily Google does a decent job of returning relevant results from a sentence. Unlike Google, databases can't understand an entire sentence. You will need to break your topic down into the most important ideas, or keywords. Even Google will give you better results if you use relevant keywords!

Exclude irrelevant words

When using the databases, you should exclude all extraneous words from your searches. First, leave out all articles (a, and, the) in your search. Next, narrow your search terms down to two or three words that describe exactly what you hope to find For example, if you are writing a paper about the theme of discrimination in Frankenstein, narrowing your search terms down to discrimination and Frankenstein will likely retrieve a manageable list of more precise results.

Select and refine search terms

After you have selected your initial search terms, list any synonyms or related terms that might be relevant to your topic. For example, if your search terms are Frankenstein and discrimination, you might want to try synonyms such as "prejudice" or "intolerance" in place of discrimination. You may even replace discrimination with a related term, such as "inhumanity." Successful searches are often the result of trying out a variety of terms. Most databases will provide you with suggestions of additional or alternate search terms to use, which can lead you to better results in a shorter amount of time.

Once you've broken down your research topic into keywords you can start searching more in-depth using filters and other search tools. The boolean operators andor, & not can help you combine keywords to retrieve results directly related to your topic. Boolean operators are like a type of filter and can be used in just about any search bar, including databases and Google! 


Most library databases have built in search tools such as filters.

Here are some useful filters:

  • Peer-Review - Limits your search to scholarly journal articles
  • Publication Date - Limit your search to resources published within a specific time frame
  • Full Text Online - This ensures all results are available to read in full. 
  • Content Type - Limits your search to just one content type such as journal articles or books
  • Subject Terms - These are like official hashtags. Select them to find sources about that subject.

You can also view the Advanced Search for more filters and tools!