Going Back In Time
How to Conduct Historical Research
Imagine that you have selected an object, but have no clues and no living witnesses to solve your history mystery. What then? Don’t give up hope. Here’s when thinking like a detective can come in handy. Your ability to dig for and find historically faithful documents from the past will help you with your investigation. Here are some tips to help you along.
When our history detectives are in search of leads to find old documents, they:
- Inspect bibliographies and footnotes for clues, then follow the paper trails back to primary sources to help them find out what really happened and why.
- Seek out original work connected to both the time and event: a photograph, diary, letter, artifact, map, business file, or court docket.
- Don't overlook any unusual records (e.g. ship manifests) that can help support their case.
- Learn to distinguish between credible and original sources and second-hand information that could be biased or misleading.
Watch Our History Detectives at Work
History Detective Eduardo Pagan conducts background research learn more about a long-forgotten map of the Japanese island of Iwo Jima that belonged to a WWII soldier.
History detective Gwendolyn Wright examines an old notebook to determine whether it is really a spy’s notebook.
Do It Yourself
You too can dig up valuable information through historical research. Just follow these four steps to get started.
Step One: Understand the Context
Before you investigate an object or a subject, identify the time or place from which it came. If you are not sure, make a list of possibilities. Then, learn about the time and place where this object was used or created. What historical events were occurring? What was life like?
Try creating a parallel timeline (see an example here) where you map out the historical events of the time with the key events surrounding the object, person, or event you are investigating. Your main research will have more meaning if you do this.
Step Two: Know Where to Look
Ask yourself who else would have an interest in your research subject and create a list of expert sources. Your list should include librarians and local experts, as well as the Internet and the local phonebook. (See our Detective Technique Guide: How to Find an Expert for more.)
The following websites can help guide your research:
American Library Association: Using Primary Sources on the Web
A guide to finding and using primary sources on the Web
The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History Collection
A collection of primary documents and exhibits, with special focus on the Revolutionary, Antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction periods.
A collection of primary source documents pertaining to early American history.
100 Milestone Documents
A collection of 100 documents that chronicle United States history from 1776 to 1965.
Repository of Primary Sources
A listing of over 5000 websites describing holdings of manuscripts, archives, rare books, historical photographs, and other primary sources from the United States and around the world, compiled by the University of Idaho.
Step Three: Consider the Quality
The best and most reliable historical documents always are primary sources. A primary source is an object or document that was created during the time period that is being studied and provides a first-hand account of the event, object, or practice that you are researching. It could be a letter, legal and financial record, eyewitness report, diary, a photograph, jewelry, or a newspaper article.
Only turn to secondary sources when it's absolutely necessary. These are documents that were created about the historical period that you are studying after that specific time. They include scholarly articles, encyclopedias, and text books, for example.
Step Four: Become Sherlock Holmes
You must quickly size up the quality of information, and cross-examine your sources. Keep the following questions in mind when reading your sources:
- Who is the author and what is his/her place in society? Did the author have a hidden motive?
- What is the document’s argument? How does it make its case?
- Who is the audience for this text?
- How does this text compare to and either support or dispute the information you’ve found in secondary sources?
- What kind of information does this document tell you without knowing it’s telling you?
- Where are the holes in the story?
- Is it really evidence, or just a red herring?
- What can I know of the past based on this source? How does it shed light on my investigation?
Now, it’s your turn. Print and use our handy checklist for conducting historical research and finding historical documents to help you. Ready, Set, Go!...
PS: Some Parting Tips from the History Detective Experts
- Don't let the source intimidate you. The Library of Congress and the National Archives have billions of records. But they are a lot like your local library, with librarians on site and online. Start by inspecting bibliographies and footnotes for clues, and then follow the paper trails back to primary sources.
- If you accept material from a biased source (e.g., the Internet, cable news, your 6th cousin) do not mix that material with your other research unless, and until, you track each fact to the primary source. How do you recognize bias? Ask yourself:
- Does this author have an agenda or specific leaning? Does he or she examine the issue from primarily one point of view?
- Is there an argument that is being made which overlooks the other side’s position?
- Avoid dubious secondary sources (textbooks, articles, encyclopedias). They recycle previously used material, and can perpetuate falsehoods.
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