News & Events
- What is a Good Source?
- Primary and Secondary Resources
- How to Start Looking for Sources
- Keeping Track of Your Searches
- Expanding or Narrowing Your Search
Historians need good sources regardless of where they are found. When doing historical research, or any type of research for that matter, it is important to consult a variety of sources, including print and digital. On-line resources are quick and convenient in that they can be accessed outside the library, but they do not represent the complete range of information available in any historical discipline. Many of the rich resources owned by the Library, both primary and secondary, are available in print. A librarian can help you locate appropriate resources for your topic. Please note that we have purposefully not separated out print documents from digital or web sources.
Good researchers don't ignore a possible location or lead. Some sources you discover may not be available in Dickinson's collection. When beginning the research process, be sure to build in enough time to order materials through Interlibrary Loan .
A good historian is defined by the willingness and ability to follow leads and being able to quickly evaluate a source for its reliability and usefulness. Clues to important and reliable information come from many places. Secondary sources are often good places to start the reserach project, as their footnotes and bibliographies can provide you with leads to primary sources and other important secondary works.
A primary source is an account by an eyewitness or the first
recorder of an event - or documents produced at the time an
event occurred. A primary source may be printed or electronic
material and can include diaries, letters, memoirs, personal
papers, public documents, field research reports, minutes
of meetings, news footage, newspaper articles, speeches, oral
histories. Primary source material can also include creative
works such as poetry, music, or art, and artifacts such as
stone points, pottery, furniture, and buildings. Dickinson
College owns primary material in fields such as Native American
and scientific history, and also has many indexes and databases
which will help you locate primary material.
A secondary source is a document which is derived from, or based on, study and analysis of primary sources. These are works that are not original manuscripts or contemporary records, but which critique, comment on, or build upon these primary sources. They nterpret and analyze primary sources and provide the background necessary to understand the primary sources. A secondary source may be printed or electronic material and can include reviews, criticism, editorials, analyses, encyclopedias, textbooks, histories, and commentaries. Most scholarly journal articles are secondary sources which provide analysis, interpretation, or evaluation.
How to Start
Looking for Sources
Developing a list of keywords for your project is vital for your bibliographic search, for your note taking and for shaping your final paper. A keyword is simply an important word or short phrase relating to your research. Keywords can be a person's name, a place, an organization or a subject. You can often use keywords to conduct a search of the library's catalog, electronic databases, or printed indexes. As you begin to reseearch your topic, you will discover additional keywords that describe your subject. Some words may no longer be in popular use (such as "Great War" for World War I or "War Between the States" for the Civil War), but may at one time have been standard. Such words or phrases will be important when you attempt to find older resources.
A subject heading is a specific word or phrase used to find and organize books and articles by topic. Subject headings are different from keywords in that they are specific terms assigned to a subject by an organization. For example, the Library of Congress supplies subject headings for books owned by Dickinson College (and other libraries), and the company that provides Historical Abstracts supplies subject headings for the articles indexed in that database.
These subject headings, also known as subject descriptors, may not be what you would expect. You might, for instance, go to our catalog and search for autobiographies and the Civil War. But the Library of Congress uses the term Personal Narrative instead of autobiography.
Library of Congress Subject headings can often be found on the page of a book that provides the publisher's information. The subject heading can then be used to search for a book or article when copied exactly as printed. Another way to figure out what the key words or subject descriptors are for your subject would be to enter the title of a book on the subject that is in our library. Then look at the bottom of the record and find the subject descriptors.
In the library catalog and many electronic databases, an items's subject(s) will be hyperlinked, so that you can click on the subject heading to find similar items. You also might want to note the exact words for future use.
This is an example of a book in the library catalog with numerous subject headings:
Personal author: Dyer, Christopher, 1944-
Title: Making a living in the middle ages : the people of Britain 850-1520 / Christopher Dyer.
Publication info: New Haven : Yale University Press, c2002.
Physical description: x, 403 p. : ill., maps ; 25 cm.
Series: (The new economic history of Britain)
General note: Paperback edition.
Bibliography note: Includes bibliographical references (p. -389) and index.
Subject: Cities and towns--Great Britain--History--To 1500.
Subject: Social classes--Great Britain--History--To 1500.
Subject: Social change--Great Britain--History--to 1500.
Subject: Working class--Great Britain--History--To 1500.
Subject: Industries--Great Britain--History--To 1500.
Subject: Middle Ages.
Subject: Great Britain--Economic conditions.
Subject: Great Britain--History--Medieval period, 1066-1485.
Subject: Great Britain--Population--History--To 1500.
Subject: England--Economic conditions--1066-1485.
Subject: England--Social conditions--1066-1485.
Subject: Scotland--Economic conditions.
Subject: Wales--Economic conditions.
Subject: Great Britain--Social conditions.
Keeping Track of Your Searches
As you begin your research project take a moment and think
about how to keep careful records of where you have searched
(what catalog or database) and with what keywords. The system
needs to be flexible and dynamic since your project may change
focus and you need to adapt. What you want to avoid is repeating
work (since you may not remember doing a search 1 month later)
or leaving a hole in your research (e.g., by searching a database
or site early on with one idea and then never returning after
you have changed directions). You also need good recordkeeping
from the start in order to keep track of your citations!
or Narrowing Your Search
Words such as AND, OR, and NOT are used to combine search terms to broaden or narrow a search in an electronic database. AND will narrow your search; for example, the search "cats AND dogs" returns items that contain both the terms cats and dogs (both terms must appear in the record). OR will broaden your search; for example, the search "cats OR dogs" will return items that contain either the term cat or the term dog - both not necessarily both. NOT will exclude specific items, thereby narrowing your search slightly. For example, the search "David Eisenhower NOT book review" will exclude any book reviews written by or about David Eisenhower, but will include any other books or articles written by or about him.