Beginner’s guide to historical research

Welcome to this beginner’s guide to historical research.

This lesson provides you with an overview of some of the key aspects of historical research.

Kirsten Mulrennan and Rachel Murphy, 'Opening a window to the past: Researching archival diaries', University of Limerick Special Collections and Archives Department website (https://specialcollections.ul.ie/research-diaries/) (Date accessed).

1. What is history and why study it?

Historians uncover manuscript, printed material and visual evidence about the past. They interpret it and present their findings in works such as monographs (sole-authored), peer-reviewed journal articles or as book sections/chapters in edited volumes.  Historians can never completely explain events of the past or the motivations of the individuals they study, because the evidence is always partial in some respect.  They identify and interpret the evidence to determine the most likely possible explanation. As new research is carried out, new evidence is identified, or new perspectives are taken, interpretations might be refined or reassessed.

2. Historical evidence: primary and secondary sources

Historians work with different kinds of evidence, or sources.  These are divided into two key categories – primary and secondary sources.

 

Primary sources

A primary source can be defined as evidence that was created at or near to the time-period being studied.  It was made by someone who was either directly involved in an event, an eyewitness, or someone who heard an account of the event.  Primary sources most frequently take the form of a manuscript (e.g. letter or diary) or printed document (e.g. report or pamphlet), but they also include artefacts (objects) such as paintings and other kinds of media e.g. films or websites.  Historians have access to an increasing number of digitised primary sources, and even landscapes can be considered primary sources.
 

MS01 ‘Maps of the Estate of Lord George Quin’, townland map of Glanegross, Barony of Bunratty, Co Clare (1812), Cussen Collection

 

Secondary sources

Everything that historians have written about the past is considered to be a secondary source.  Secondary sources are interpretations of the past and are usually based on historical evidence from primary sources, or from other secondary sources. Examples of secondary sources include books, essays, and peer-reviewed journal articles.
 

Selection of historical secondary sources, Special Collections and Archives Department

 
For more on archives, and the types of primary and secondary collections held in the Special Collections and Archives Department, see our FAQ: Beginner’s guide to archival research.

DID YOU KNOW?

Sometimes a secondary source can be a primary source, depending on how a historian uses it.  William Edward Hartpole Lecky published A History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century in 1892.  This would be considered a secondary source in most cases, but if you were using it as evidence of how historians wrote history in the nineteenth century then it would be described as a primary source.

3. Conducting historical research

 

This section introduces you to some of the steps that historians follow when researching and writing up their findings in relation to a specific topic.  In practice, the stages may be more blurred than this, and certain stages might be repeated as the historian refines their thinking.  Some excellent reference books have been written on how to conduct historical research, and these are listed in the Further Reading section below.

 

1. Identify a research topic/question

Most history studies commence with a question that a historian wants to answer, or a hypothesis (a theory that is tested against the evidence). It is important to be able to clearly articulate the research topic.

 

2. Identify and critique what has already been written about that topic

Once the historian has formulated a research question or a hypothesis, they need to read around the topic further to understand what research has already been conducted, and where their work will fit within the existing literature. The aim is to build on existing academic work, thereby increasing our knowledge of a topic. Historians refer to these existing works of scholarship as secondary sources.

DID YOU KNOW?

Students at the University of Limerick can access secondary sources in the Glucksman Library, in particular books and reference works. Some historical reference works are also held in Special Collections. These can be found by searching the Online Catalogue from the Library Homepage.

The Glucksman Library also provides access to a wide range of online journals and eBooks.

Secondary sources
At different points in time, and in different geographies, historians have taken different approaches to researching and writing history. Some historians study historiography (writing history) and they highlight the different approaches to writing history that historians have taken.

As historians, we need to review secondary sources from a critical perspective. This means understanding who wrote the study, why they wrote it, their research aims and findings, and how their work fits with the existing literature, or discourse, around the topic. Not all secondary sources used by historians are written by historians – historians might also read studies by geographers, sociologists and economists to name a few examples. Where and when a work was published can also help us to interpret it from a critical perspective. Historians also have to consider how secondary sources relate to each other and how the scholarship on a given topic has developed over time. When historians write about a given topic, we again use the word ‘historiography’ this time to denote the existing scholarship relating to that theme.

 

3. Locate and interpret evidence relating to the topic

While some historians may conduct studies that focus only on secondary sources, most work with evidence from or close to the period they are studying, for instance letters, newspaper articles, census data – these are referred to as primary sources.

The first step is to locate primary sources relating to the topic. This is not always a simple task as records can be located in a range of places. Imagine a landed estate – the structure may have changed over time as various owners bought and sold land in various locations. For this reason, the historian of a landed estate in Limerick might need to look for relevant papers in the Glucksman Special Collections, Limerick County Archives, the National Library of Ireland, the National Archives of Ireland, the Registry of Deeds, private family collections and collections overseas. It is difficult to know what might survive, so an extensive search needs to take place. For suggestions on how to do this see: How do I find other archival collections that are relevant to me?

DID YOU KNOW?

Students at the University of Limerick can access primary sources held in Archives and Special Collections. Some of these sources have been digitised and can be viewed online.

You can also access digital sources online through databases e.g. Ancestry.com, Irish Newspaper Archive, UK Parliamentary Papers.  If you have a UL library account you can access these by going to the Library homepage, selecting Explore Collections > Databases A-Z and searching for the source you wish to view.

After locating the primary sources, the next step is to read them for understanding. Depending on the topic, geography and period the historian is investigating they will need to draw on specific skills.  Some historians need to know a second language (Latin, Irish, Spanish for example); medical historians may need an understanding of nosology (classification of diseases); economic historians and historical demographers need a high degree of proficiency in numeracy and statistics. In the case of manuscripts this often requires an ability to decipher unfamiliar handwriting, so a good understanding of relevant aspects of palaeography (the science or art of deciphering and interpreting historical manuscripts and writing systems) is a key skill. For more on reading and understanding unfamiliar handwriting, see related lesson on archival transcription.

Having understood the words in the document, historians then interpret their meaning. For instance, the document might be a legal one such as a deed which follows a particular structure. Some words had a different meaning the past, so this needs to be understood too. The online Oxford dictionary can help you to understand the past as well as present meanings of the word, and this is accessible via the UL library website. In addition, a source might seem easy to understand, but there might be an underlying meaning.

The historian needs to consider the source from a critical perspective, asking questions such as:

  • What kind of source is it and why was it created?
  • When was it created? Was it created at the time of the event, or has some time elapsed? How might this affect the content included?
  • Who created it? What is the author’s perspective? Do they have a particular political or religious viewpoint, for instance? Can their account be trusted?

These questions help us to understand any potential issues with the information included in the source.

 

4. Analysis

The way in which historians analyse their sources depends on the kind of information they include. The most common form of analysis is the close reading of documentary sources.  In this approach the historian reads the source for understanding and then abstracts the information that is relevant to their research topic – often in the form of note-taking on a computer or by hand. While they are undertaking this process, they often identify questions that arise in terms of meaning of the text, and this usually leads them to additional secondary sources and reference works that need to be consulted. Historians also try to corroborate information, ideally by triangulating it, to support their research findings. The process of historical document analysis has not been documented much and can be hard to define as much of it occurs within the mind of the historian and is an iterative process.

Thematic analysis is another qualitative approach. The researcher identifies themes that naturally emerge from the documents under review. These can be coded in software and subsequently analysed further. Close reading requires a very detailed analysis of language used within a given document, while the case study approach involves a very detailed and in-depth study of a particular family or community.

Historians also use quantitative analysis, taking numerical data and analysing it from a statistical perspective.  An economic historian might use government agricultural data to calculate agricultural productivity rates, examining the output per head, and per hectare and expressing these as percentages.  A demographic historian might seek to understand what percentage of the population emigrated, or the average age at marriage and the extent to which this changed over time. At a smaller scale, a historian might analyse communities at a parish level, drawing on census data. In each case, statistical analysis is necessary, whether carried out using an Excel spreadsheet, a database, or specialist software such as SPSS (a software package designed specifically for statistical analysis).

Economic history and historical demography draw on analytical techniques from other disciplines.  Likewise digital tools such as Geographical Information Systems and Corpus Linguistics approaches help the historian to identify and analyse spatial and linguistic patterns in their sources, while the use of computing allows analysis of historical Big Data – information such as national census data or migration statistics.

 

5. Writing up and sharing the findings

Once the research has been conducted an important aspect of the historian’s work is to write up and disseminate their research findings.

Writing
Historians, like all academics, write up their findings in a scholarly way. One of the most important aspects of academic writing is that scholars reference all the primary and secondary sources they have used in their research. Most commonly they use footnotes to reference works they have consulted, and at the back of books they also include a bibliography of sources they have used.

Disseminating
Conferences: Historians often attend conferences to present their research. This is something they will often do before they have fully written up their work, because the feedback from other scholars can be very informative.

Publications
Historians publish their research in a range of locations:

  • Academic journals: scholarly publications, each of which has a particular theme e.g. Irish Historical Studies, Medical History, History of Education, or International Journal of the History of Sport.
  • Edited collections: a book which has an overarching theme, and to which historians contribute individual chapters.
  • Monographs: a single-authored book which focuses on one topic.

All of the above are examples of secondary sources.

Media
Historians also share their findings through media such as TV, radio, exhibitions and other events.

DID YOU KNOW?

A qualification in history can provide you with the excellent written and critical analysis skills required of a historian.  Here at the University of Limerick we offer both undergraduate and postgraduate history courses in which you can learn how to conduct your own research to an academically rigorous standard:

4. Quiz

1. Which of the following would be considered primary sources?
2. Fill in the blank:
Works produced by historians, such as journal articles, essays and books are generally described as sources.
3. Historiography can be defined as:
4. Qualitative analysis is:

5. Further reading and resources