Casting a critical eye on historical research

Submitted by Sammy Smith (

Historical research is an adventure into the past! Archaeologists use historical research to amplify the archaeological record. History is the past that can be amplified by written records. Even archaeologists interested in prehistory will do some historical research. For example, they may be interested in the chain of land ownership of a prehistoric site.

Simply, historical research involves delving into documents to understand a topic within the context of its era or time period. Before you do that…

What’s a document?

Documents are items with information that communicates something. They used to be only physical items like books, letters, land deeds, maps, bank checks, placques, old newspapers, and sketches. Now we categorize digital materials like blogs, and even this online story, as documents.

Historians consider documents to be surviving evidence of the past. Some historians use archaeological data, but most archaeologists are open to using documents as an aid to understanding the past.

Consider source types

Whatever you find, you must keep in mind what type of document or information you have—in short: what type of source does it have? Historians and archaeologists using historical research techniques categorize sources as primary, secondary, and tertiary.

These source types indicate how removed the document is from the event or situation they document. For example, the letter written by a soldier right after a battle he was in is a primary source about that conflict—the letter constitutes a record made by someone who was there and participated in the event. Secondary sources gather primary—and other secondary—source materials and synthesize or discuss them. A typical history book is a secondary source. There are also tertiary sources. Encyclopedias and many textbooks are tertiary sources, if they compile information from secondary sources.

Formal, academic research bibliographies by convention do not include tertiary sources, although the author may have consulted them and found them useful. Wikipedia is considered a tertiary source and therefore is not typically referenced in papers, articles, and books. (The exception is if the author specifically addresses an issue discussed in Wikipedia. Wikipedia is not referenced for the information it records.)

A question

Historical research arises first from a question—or a series of questions. Perhaps you begin with something you wonder about from your own life. You may look that old building over there—when was it built and by whom? You may be curious about a historic figure or event—where did Juliette Gordon Low live? Or your question may be quite personal: where was my Grandma born?

Consideration of your original question may raise additional questions.

A topic

Now you need to focus your question or questions. This becomes a research topic—the building or a historical person in the examples above. You may dip into a readily available tertiary source (including Wikipedia!) to help you focus your topic.

Exploring your topic

Your next step is to gather relevant information on your topic.

Talk to people.

After that, probably your first and primary sources are documents. The most obvious place to find documents is a library—including special collections such as donations by individuals (the Internet is not enough!). Put your ideas in the context of other theories—in short, learn what others have written about your topic.


Consider the assumptions you and other researchers have made. Often assumptions are related to judgements—look for data that supports or refutes your assumptions. You may make assumptions about the overall feel of the social climate in the past. For example, you may think that it was an angry time in Atlanta in the early 1960s prior to implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Check newspaper articles, etc. to decide if this assumption is correct or not. Indeed, you may find that your assumptions are somewhat correct, but that the situation was far more nuanced.

Talk to people. This helps focus your thoughts and figure out what you need to research further.

Synthesis and writing

Now that you have gathered information relevant to your topic, you have to bring it together! Some people begin with the bibliography, so they feel they’ve made progress before they begin writing. Many writers find an outline a valuable way to begin. Once your synthesis is underway, don’t be afraid to recheck your assumptions or to verify some information that seems poorly supported or somewhat ephemeral.


So, historical research undoubtedly is an adventure into the past. It can be fun and produce surprises! Log in and discuss a surprise finding you have made….