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History Research Seminars: Best Practices for Students

This guide support students enrolled in the Research Seminars in the History Department.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are works that provide summaries, analysis, commentary, or criticism on the primary source.*

As upper-level history students, you will have learned about, searched for, and used secondary sources in previous research assignments. Building on your previous experience, finding secondary sources for History Research Seminars papers on independent/original topics will feel a little bit different.


Why is this? This is because secondary sources here should be centered within the discipline of History and this will requires that you use unfamiliar Library Databases and some advanced search and filter settings. This is also because your research question and arguments will be narrower than in previous papers, for example Women Artists situated with Irish History, and this may make it difficult to notice useful books or journal articles by their titles or abstracts alone. Finally, your professors may recommend scholarly authors to read, and and this may require some additional skills in finding and accessing these specific sources. 

More about the types of secondary sources we're talking about:

Scholarly books are written by a specialist and intended for other specialists in the field. They provide In-depth research on large topics, which can include analysis of an issue's context and consequences, comparison of multiple views, or broad interdisciplinary approaches to a topic as well as historical information. You can identify these by their publishers, usually a university press (like our own UC Press) or a dedicated academic publishing company. However, even mainstream popular presses occasionally publish academic works. Look for these signs of "scholarliness:"*


Before you start searching databases: Explore your syllabus for recommended books. Your professor, once they know the topic you're workign on, may recommend authors or books to start with. This is something to work on right away: Finding these right away and quicky aquinat yourself with the book looking for background information; primary sources they uses; their questions and arguments. You can do this by skimming.

Likewise, you can also get a background by reading a relevant and short encyclopedia entry. Wikipedia is okay, but its entries often do not reference the most recent scholarship and its bibliography frequently leaves out key sources. you will be better served by an encyclopedia from an Academic Press, which will be written by a scholar familiar with all the most important works for you to know. This is a quick way to read an overview of the topic and quickly shift to getting started on your research.


From there, you can expand your search for books by using UC Library Search. Sign in for full access. Some books will be in the Library, and you'll need to pick these up off the shelf. Some books will be availabel as eBooks (if you have problems, use the Ask Us button to report problems). Some books might need to be "Requested through InterLibrary Loan." Use the opens on the left of the page to see books at other UCs, like Berkeley or Los Angeles.

Articles in Peer Reviewed Journals are shorter in length because they often exclude background information and explanations. These provide narrowly focused analysis, detailed findings from individual studies, and the latest information on a topic. Because of this, they can prove useful, after you've narrowed down your topic and need to find very specific information.*


Journal articles are interesting because they're more closely aligned with the research you're doing in this course. The main exception is that the authors have, to an extent, mastered the core texts in their field study (as part of their PhD work and beyond), and their interaction with primary sources are deeper (they may travel to archives and they may have extended time with the primary sources under study).


Their narrowness and uniqueness sometimes makes them harder to engage with for use in research papers. The ways they are useful is that they can inform use of methods they used to read or evaluate primary sources; they can shed light on the topic through their interpretations and arguments; or you can read these and think about what's missing in their work that you'd like to show in your work or analysis. Therefore, a journal article need not be exactly on your topic, for example they could an approach to reading primary sources that you want to mirror or they could make an argument that you agree with or disagree with and so on. This is more than just mining for quotes to make your paragraph sound better. Read and reflect on their research and where your work sits in comparison.  


For finding, you may already have go tos. What are these for you? For some it's often just Google (in which case, have you heard of Google Scholar) or JSTOR. Some other database search engines to use include Web of Science (which includes a very neat "cited by" tool); the new UC Library Search allow you to narrow to peer reviewed articles (but this is a good last resort tool); America History and Life or Historical Abstracts or Periodicals Archive Online are also quite useful. Depending on the area of study of your course, there may be other databases out there, for example HAPI (Hispanic American Periodicals Index)


*Borrows from Articles, Books, and . . . ? Understanding the Many Types of Information Found in Libraries