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History Library Guide

The main library guide to support historical research, including primary and secondary resources for all geographical areas and time periods.

Using Secondary Sources

"A historian working on a particular subject is expected to show a thorough knowledge of the work of other historians in that field. They will be expected to show how their work stands in relation to these other accounts, in terms of their methodology, interpretations and use of sources."1

1. Mark Donnelly and Claire Norton, Doing History (New York : Routledge, 2011), 68.

When reading secondary sources, apply the same critical lens as you would with primary source materials.

In what context was the historian writing?  Does the historian's time period have bearing on her interpretations? Does the historian's geographical location have an influence on his work?  Does the historian subscribe to a particular school of thought or methodology?

What sources did the historian use or omit?  Does the historian's choice of primary sources explain or limit the nature of her conclusions? Does the omission of certain primary sources affect his analysis?  Is the historian responding to a previous interpretation or body of work on the subject?

Finding Secondary Sources

An important component of any research project is a literature review, commonly known as historiography to historians.  The literature review is a summary and synthesis of the existing scholarship on a given subject.  Reviewing the work of other scholars--thereby identifying the major debates, questions, and possibly the gaps in the existing research--helps to place your own analysis in context.  In other words, it helps answer the question, how is your research new and important?

The first step in creating a literature review is, of course, finding the literature to review.  A good literature review should be as comprehensive as necessary to identify all of the major works and debates on your research subjects.  Here are some tips for going beyond basic keyword searching in order to find as many sources as you can.

    • Search widely - since no one search tool covers everything, search in more than one catalog and multiple databases. In addition to Howard-Tilton's catalog, remember that WorldCat is a catalog of catalogs, and allows you to locate books and other materials held by other major libraries. (See ILL below.)

    • Subject-specific Databases - search in databases specific to your discipline of study to find more sources in your field. For example, America History & Life specializes in U.S. and Canadian history; Historical Abstracts covers history outside of the US and Canada. These will have more coverage of the historical journal literature than an interdisciplinary, all-purpose database such as Academic Search Complete.  

    • Subject Headings - also called descriptors, these terms are pre-set tags assigned to items to describe their content, or what they are about. Subject headings often facilitate more precise searching as they eliminate the need to search multiple phrases, synonyms, and languages for the same concept.  Look for subject headings on items in the library catalog and in databases of journal articles.  Most databases also provide a thesaurus, or index, of the subject headings used.

    • Bibliography mining - once you have a relevant source, review the footnotes and bibliography for sources used by the author. This helps you to better understand the author's interpretations as well as helps you to locate more primary and secondary sources on your subject.

    • Citation Searching -  while bibliography mining helps locate older cited works, citation searching can lead to newer works that have cited the source at hand.  Web of Science, JSTOR, and Google Scholar are tools that can guide you to the books and articles that have cited a work you already found.

    • Beyond Tulane - if you find a citation for a source Tulane doesn't own, use Inter-Library Loan (ILLiad) to get it. Once you've created a free ILLiad account, enter the citation information and the staff at Howard-Tilton will try to obtain it for you.  Articles and chapters can usually be scanned and sent electronically, but books must be mailed and typically arrive in 1-2 weeks, so plan ahead.
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