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Write a History Paper

Research Strategies

When you first begin your research, it is often helpful to engage in some general reading on the topic of interest. Feel free to scan the internet and consult encyclopedias to gain an overall understanding of the main themes, key dates, and historical players of the issue you are researching. Keep in mind, however, that websites like Wikipedia, though potentially useful as a basic resource, are not considered to be scholarly sources and cannot be used in academic bibliographies. Such resources are only to be used as a stepping stone for your real research.

Questioning What You Read

Questioning what you are reading will help narrow your focus – and remember that stronger papers often cover less since a very broad topic can create a paper that is too simplistic. For instance, while you might be interested in writing a paper about the First World War it is unrealistic to try and tackle the entire subject in one 10-page paper! A much more realistic approach would be to focus on one aspect of this conflict. Perhaps you find propaganda particularly intriguing. In this case, you would start keeping track of instances where propaganda has been mentioned in your general reading. From here you would begin assessing whether the topic – propaganda and the First World War – is researchable. Essentially a topic becomes "researchable" when you determine whether there are sufficient sources available to you.

When writing your history paper, you will draw from two types of sources: secondary and primary.


Start taking notes from the very beginning of your research. Having good notes will help you organize your thoughts about the topic and will help you when sitting down to write the final paper. The best notes are those that document your thoughts on what you have read – keep track of things that interest you (such as a particular person, event or reaction), things that seem unusual, and anything that makes you question "why?"

Primary Sources

Primary sources are original materials produced or created during an event or experience. Primary sources come in many different forms – and are distinguished by when they were created, rather than what form they take. They include documents produced by individuals, governments, and institutions, and may have been created for publication or private use. These are the documents that really allow you to engage with history, as they provide insight into what people were thinking and how they were acting at a given moment in time. Essentially they act as a window into the past.

Primary sources include but are not limited to

  • Books
  • Diaries
  • Films
  • Legislation
  • Letters
  • Newspapers
  • Parliamentary papers
  • Photographs
  • Physical objects such as pottery
  • Population records

See the Library's Primary Source Guide for more information.

In addition to reading primary sources for content, one also must give consideration to potential biases, limitations and trustworthiness of the sources. Questions to ask include "who created it and for what purpose?"; "who was the intended audience?"; "how does it fit into the wider historical context?", etc.

Exposure to a range of primary documents can ultimately be a catalyst for forming new research questions, allowing for a more "bottom-up" approach requiring a broadening focus, as opposed to the narrowing approach of the "top-down" approach discussed previously. For instance, when glancing at a newspaper you might stumble across a news story about a specific criminal trial. In reading about this situation, it may become apparent that certain class and/or gender issues featured prominently in the legal arguments or testimony. However, to make an historical argument about the case it becomes necessary to link the trial to the larger context, which can be located in secondary texts.

Finding Primary Sources

Primary sources can be located a number of different ways. Many published primary sources are available through Omni.

For instance, in researching Canadian propaganda during the First World War, you may discover that the department responsible for producing propaganda was the Dominion Publicity Committee (Victory Loan). A keyword search of this committee through Omni locates ABC of the Victory Loan, created in 1918. Such a source might provide significant insight into the type of propaganda produced by the government during this time period.

Other primary sources can be located in archives, including Guelph's own Archival and Special Collections, and, increasingly, primary sources can also be located online.

As with all websites, consideration must be given to the reliability of the site. Generally, websites hosted by reputable organizations and academic institutions can be trusted. For instance, the Canadian War Poster Collection, which is hosted through the McGill Rare Books and Special Collections, is considered reputable and could be used in a paper analyzing Canadian propaganda in the First World War.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are books, monographs, and journal articles written by academics. These range from the very broad (Introduction to Western Civilization) to the very specific (Charles Dickens and the Movement for Sanitary Reform), and represent historians' interpretations of historical events.

Secondary sources are easily located through Omni and Journal Indexes (Project Muse and JSTOR are particularly popular databases).

As you read secondary sources, pay attention to the texts used by the authors. In addition to providing insight about what scholars rely on to form their arguments, footnotes and bibliographies can also augment your own research plan and highlight those sources that you might not have otherwise looked at for your own paper.

It should be noted that some sources can be viewed as either secondary or primary, depending on what research questions are being asked. For instance, while Edward Gibbon's, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, is  a solid piece of scholarly work, it also provides insight into aspects of Enlightenment philosophy, since Gibbon was very much a product of his age.

Narrowing Your Search Focus

If we were to continue with our earlier example, the keywords "World War, 1914-1918" and "propaganda" produce more than 500 entries in Omni. While a number of duplicate results may exist, in all likelihood you will not have time to read all of these books. Consequently, your research focus must be further narrowed.

For example, a much more manageable topic to research would be Canadian propaganda during the First World War. In this instance it would be useful to draw on one or two texts that deal generally with the war (such as The Great War, 1914-1918 by I.F.W. Beckett), texts that deal specifically with Canada (such as Canada and the First World War by John Alexander Swettenham), and texts that deal with propaganda and the war (such as A Call to Arms: Propaganda, Public Opinion, and Newspapers in the Great War by Troy Paddock).

The most useful texts would be those that relate most closely to your own research concern – namely Canadian propaganda during the First World War. Consequently, you would draw upon such texts as Propaganda and Censorship during Canada's Great War by Jeff Keshen, The Great War of Words: British, American and Canadian Propaganda and Fiction, 1914-1933 by Peter Buitenhuis, and What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?: A Visual History of Propaganda Posters by Peter Stanley.


When writing any academic paper, it is important to use proper referencing in order to avoid plagiarism. As a general rule, one should reference any specialized knowledge and/or ideas that are not your own, as well as any direct quotations. More information on plagiarism – and how to avoid it – can be located on the Plagiarism and Academic Integrity LibGuide and through the Academic Integrity at the University of Guelph website.

Chicago style is the commonly accepted reference system for history. Although Chicago style allows for two forms of referencing – in-text citation or notes and bibliography – most historians rely on the latter and use either footnotes or endnotes in their papers.

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