Research papers are a great opportunity to explore your interests or discover new ones. But with so many potential topics to choose from and sources to navigate, it can be difficult to know where to start. In this post, we’ll give you a step-by-step guide to starting your history research paper.
Step One: Pick a (manageable) research topic
This means that your topic is not so big that you’ll be overwhelmed by sources but not so niche that you’ll have difficulty finding anything.
Help! I’m drowning in sources…
If your topic is too big, you can do two things.
(1) Narrow the scope. If you’d planned to write on the Great Depression, research one aspect of the Great Depression, such as gender politics or the Civilian Conservation Corps. This narrower topic will turn up fewer sources, making it easier to manage.
(2) Limit the kinds of sources. Focus only on newspaper coverage or only on one newspaper’s coverage or only on one newspaper’s coverage between 1933 and 1936. Limiting which sources you’re looking at or the time period you’re covering will help keep your topic manageable.
Help! I can’t find sources…
You need sources to do research! Before committing to a topic, make sure there are secondary and primary sources that you can easily access — ideally at your school library or online. If you can’t find enough sources or if the sources you want to look at are housed in a professional archive, consider changing your topic.
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Step Two: Start researching… with books. No, really! Research using books.
Once you’ve picked your topic, it’s time to start researching—but hold off before firing up your computer. There’s a time for online research, but the internet is not the best place to start because of the difficulty of assessing the credibility of online sources.
Instead, start by visiting your school library to check out some books on your topic. There are two reasons books are a great place to start: they provide the most comprehensive overview of your subject and they’ve been peer reviewed and fact checked, so they are usually credible. Another good starting point is an academic database like JSTOR. Academic databases give you access to the latest research in the form of peer-reviewed articles—another credible source.
Books and articles can also help you find other sources—just follow the footnotes and bibliography! Pro tip: look for articles and books published in the last few years to make sure you’re using the most up-to-date research.
Step Three: Balance your primary and secondary sources
Primary sources are first-hand accounts from the time period, such as newspaper articles, diaries, and photographs. Secondary sources are usually scholarly or journalistic accounts, such as your history textbook, books, and articles. Primary sources are the heart of your research paper. Focus on analyzing these sources while using secondary sources for background. If you aren’t sure you’ve struck the right balance, check with your teacher about how many primary and secondary sources they expect you to use.
Step Four: Have fun!
Research papers are a great opportunity to learn about a subject that interests you. Before you even get started, spend some time thinking of a (doable) topic that you actually want to learn about—you’ll not only have a lot more fun, but your paper will be better for it. Happy researching!