This library course guide is intended to help students hone their information literacy skills related to the research and writing of an essay in history at the university level.
Your assignments at university are an invitation to join a scholarly conversation by exploring topics in depth, formulating a unique research question, examining the research of others along with primary sources, then building an argument, and drawing your own conclusions.
A good research topic is one that sparks your interest and allows you to ask new questions in order to find meaningful answers. This guide is intended to help you get started.
Pick a research topic
- Read your assignment instructions carefully
- Pick a research topic that interests you and meets the assignment criteria
- Identify the key concepts of your research topic
- Do some background reading on your topic using Wikipedia
- Using Wikipedia wisely (watch this video for tips)
Dictionaries and handbooks to help you better understand key concepts, themes and areas of research:
- A companion to postcolonial studies
- A companion to Western historical thought
- A dictionary of contemporary world history
- Fifty key works of history and historiography
- Routledge companion to historical studies
- Short history of the world
- Western Civilization in world history
- World History: a concise thematic analysis
Although many of the library's databases provide access to all types of sources, your professor will want you to use peer reviewed academic literature from journals or books (also known as monographs).
What does peer review mean? Watch this video: Peer Review in 3 minutes
Academic journals (also known as periodicals or serials), publish the world's most recent peer reviewed research in all disciplines, whereas popular magazines are primarily designed to entertain and inform the general public. Getting to know the difference between these sources is important.
If you are unsure if a journal is scholarly and peer reviewed, check Ulrichsweb. It is the definitive source that lets you know what type of journal you are using by 'content type'.
To find journal articles or books on any topic, you have two options:
- type your topic in the box, or use the Advanced Search
- Omni searches most of the library's databases simultaneously, for all types of material, ie: journal articles, books/e-books, newspapers, magazines, maps, reviews, statistical data sets, videos, etc.
- each search will return many results (much like Google), so you must use the filters to refine your search results
- if you are looking for a specific journal article or book, use quotation marks around the title
- Need help? Try Omni Search Tips
2. Search specialized databases for History. The following are recommended:
- Historical Abstracts
- America, History and Life
- JSTOR - digital library of journals, books and primary sources
These databases are focused on various areas of historical research and contain citations or full text links to journal articles, books, conference proceedings, reports, and dissertations.
3. Search the following recommended World History Journals, individually, by using the Journal Search in Omni:
- Journal of contemporary history
- Journal of global history
- Journal of imperial and Commonwealth history
- Journal of social history
- Journal of world history
- Past & Present
- Studies in the world history of slavery, abolition and emancipation
- Transactions of the Royal Historical Society
- World history connected
- World history review
Step by step Instructions for creating a good search string
1. Identify the main concepts of your research topic and brainstorm possible keywords.
Example 1: How did isolation from European colonization affect the Japanese during the Tokugawa period?
Example 2: Were Spanish trade routes significantly responsible for the spread disease among the Aztecs in Mesoamerica?
2. Use Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT) to combine concepts and enhance your search. These command words must be in CAPS.when searching Omni. Examples:
By using AND, you are narrowing your search: European AND colonization AND "Tokugawa period"
By using OR you will connect two or more similar concepts (synonyms) and thereby expand your search:
(missionaries OR white fathers) AND role AND Africa AND language
By using NOT, you will be excluding a word: corona NOT virus
3. Enclose phrases with quotation marks to keep words together. Example: "white fathers"
4. Use truncation (or stemming) to broaden your search. Place an asterisk * at the end of a root word to search various word endings. Example: (disease* OR pandemic*) and (Aztec* OR Mesoamerica*)
5. Begin searching for material with Omni, the library's main search box to find books and other sources on your topic.
6. Remember to use the filters to refine your search and focus on peer reviewed articles or scholarly books.
7. Use this Research Worksheet to help create your search strings
All information found online using Google should be critically evaluated because there is no guarantee that it is reliable or accurate.
While doing your research, check each source for currency, reliability, authority and purpose.
Try to answer the questions below:
Currency (Is the information up-to-date?)
- How recent is the information?
- How recently has the website been updated?
- Is the website modified regularly?
- Is the information current enough for your research?
Checklist for up-to-date information
- Site or page date
- Is the date of publication or last revision published (often at the bottom of the page)?
- When was the site or page last updated?
- Is the information out-of-date?
Reliability (Is the information trustworthy?)
- Is this web page intended for elementary or high school students?
- If so, is it the best site to refer to when writing a university-level research paper?
- Has the information passed through any peer reviewing process?
- Has the author(s) documented his/her sources by including a reference list?
- Is the information reproduced from another site. If so, which one?
- If applicable, when were the sources published?
Checklist for reliable information
- Evidence of the peer review process (e.g., in an "About us" or editorial statement)
- A bibliography or reference list
Authority (Is the author credible?)
- Who is the creator or author of the website or web page
- E.g., a recognized individual or organization/government?
- What are his/her/its credentials
- E.g., is the individual author or organization known in the field?
- Has the author published other material(s)?
- Does the author provide contact information (e.g., email address or phone number) in case you want to verify the information?
- Who is the publisher or sponsor?
- Can you determine if he/she/the organization has a good reputation?
Checklist for authoritative information
- Look for information about the author of the site or page. Is the author qualified to publish on this topic?
- E.g. Can you identify the author's education and relevant professional experience?
- Look up the author's name in the Library search box or use Wikipedia.
- Read the uniform resource locator (URL) carefully to determine if you are reading someone's personal page.
- You need to investigate the author carefully because personal pages have no publisher or domain owner to vouch for the information.
- Is the domain extension appropriate for the content?
- Government sites: .gov
- Educational sites: edu
- Nonprofit organizations: .org
- Identify the publisher (individual or organization) of the site or page.
- The publisher operates the server computer from which the site or page is issued. Do you know anything about the publisher?
"About us" links
- Read the information on the site or page about the author and/or publisher.
- This could be under "about us," "philosophy," "background," or "bibliography" tabs.
Page design or structure
- Page design is not always an indicator of credibility but if a site or page is easy to navigate, you'll be able to assess the information more easily.
Purpose/Point of view (Is the information objective?)
- What is the purpose or point of view of the site?
- Is the information primarily fact or opinion?
- Does the point of view seem balanced and/or objective (e.g., presents more than one perspective)?
- What is the publisher's interest (if any) in this information?
- Does the site try to persuade, advocate, entertain, or sell a product?
Begin with these definitions:
Searching for primary sources:
Search your topic (or historical person of interest) using Omni, the library's main search box to find primary sources (or reproductions) in our collection. Keyword searches that include the following terms will identify primary materials most of the time, example: "white fathers" AND memoir*
- Diar* (for diary or diaries)
- Personal narrative
Other search tips:
- Use bibliographies and footnotes of secondary sources on your topic to help identify primary source material.
- Useful e-book: History Beyond the Text : A Student's Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources
- Original documents can also be found by searching our archival collections or by contacting the Archives and Special Collections (ASC) staff for help.
Historical Newspaper Databases
Primary Sources on the web
- Archives and Primary Sources Databases
- Digital Public Library of America
- Internet Archive
- Hathi Trust Emergency Temporary Access Service
- Library of Congress Digital Collections
- National Archives (UK)
- New York Public Library Digital Collections
- RUSA Primary Sources on the web guide
Other libraries with significant primary source collections:
- Center for Research Libraries (CRL) - Carleton University Library is a member of the CRL consortium. It regularly acquires and preserves newspapers, journals, documents, archives, and other traditional and digital resources for research and teaching and makes them available to member institutions through your RACER account.
Writing your essay
Books on research and writing
- Essaying the past; how to read, write and think about history
- Student writing; give it a generous reading
Citing your sources is an important part of academic writing. Why?
- it lets you acknowledge the ideas or words of others if you use them in your work
- it demonstrates that you are using the scholarly record and that you can provide authority for statements you make in your term paper
- it enables readers to find the source information
- it helps you to avoid plagiarism
- Citing your sources
- Chicago Citation Style guide on how to cite for Notes and Bibliography
- OWL Purdue Writing Lab - Chicago Style
Your instructor recommends the following link and notes that "footnotes are the standard citation method for history papers": Chicago Manual of Style: Bibliographic format for references
Other Writing Help
Writing Services offers students instruction on developing an argument, structuring ideas, and writing well.