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The Basics: Historical Research | Special Collections and University Archives

Ready for research?

Choose a Topic

What topics interest you the most?  Think about historical events, people, or even time periods

Think big first---it's easier to start with a broad topic or question and then narrow down.  This will give you more options and choices, and will bring about new questions that will help you in your research.  

Think as well about time period and geography when choosing a research topic. Is this a topic that can be answered and researched from where you are? Will the sources most likely be in a language you can read and understand?  The farther you go back in history, the harder it may be to find sources.  The same can be said for topics that are too recent--if an event is still going on there may not be many sources yet.  This should not dissuade you from choosing something you are passionate about researching, but should provide you with some questions to think about as you get started.


Historical research requires both primary and secondary source research. 

Primary sources are created by individuals during the time period in which you are studying (e.g. newspapers, books, diaries, letters, pamphlets, etc.).  These can help you to understand how people during that time experienced and thought about life.  These can be found in archives, special collections, libraries, and are many times online in primary source databases.  To find primary sources, start by searching for more information on your topic, ask your school or local librarian, and search for local archives, libraries, and special collections that may have relevant sources in person or online. 

More information on primary sources

More information on using primary sources in person and online at UMD's Special Collections and University Archives

Secondary sources are interpretations of past events, primarily through the use of primary sources (e.g. academic histories, books, etc.).  These can help to provide you with context and background information about the time period/event/person you are studying, and can often lead to further research and sources.

More information on secondary sources

Make an Historical Argument

History is not simply about facts and figures, but is instead focused on explaining how and why things in the past occurred.  Because of this, every good piece of history has an argument.  This is done by carefully examining your sources and analyzing what they are saying within the context of what you already know about that time period, person, or event.  How can these sources help us to better understand the past? Do your findings refute or support the secondary sources you've read about your topic?

Tips and more information on analyzing primary sources