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Handbook for Historians

Guide to writing research papers for the History Department at Le Moyne College

Gathering Sources for your Paper

I. Gathering These Types of Sources for a History Paper

Again, do not use encyclopedias (either online or print versions), or web sites (even those associated with universities) as sources for your paper! You are to consult the work of historians who have studied and analyzed your topic. Historians do not publish their work in encyclopedias or on web sites. They write books and journal articles, both of which may or may not be available in electronic format. Therefore, the only time you will be using something that is on the Internet is when you are using an electronic journal article that you got by using the library’s databases. The only other acceptable use of the Internet is to have obtained a reliable copy of an historic document (a letter, a treaty, etc.)  that has been digitized on reputable sites, such as Yale University’s Avalon Project or the Library of Congress’ American Memory Project. There is more on these primary sources later in the section on the Library’s Research Guide for History web page.

Do use the following:

  1. The American Historical Association's Guide to Historical Literature. (REF DESK D 20.A55). Although published in 1995 – thus the newest sources are not included – this bibliography is the source for the best writings ever written on your topic.  Successful history students want to ensure that they have consulted the top historians who have written on their topic.
  2. The bibliography in your textbook, but NOT the textbook itself.
  3. The bibliographies of encyclopedia entries concerning your subject. (BUT AGAIN:  encyclopedia articles, like textbooks, cannot be used in your bibliography or paper.)
  4. The Noreen Reale Falcone Library’s online catalog for books. (
  5. Browsing the library shelves where books on a given subject are assembled. Whenever you go to the shelves to find a certain book you should take time to peruse the surrounding shelves for additional sources.


If the book you seek is not on the shelf, check the catalog again to see if it is on reserve or out in circulation. If the book is not on reserve, ask for help to locate it. If it is checked out to another student, you can have circulation services place a hold on it for you when the book is returned. If time is of the essence, request to borrow an additional copy via Interlibrary Loan.

  1. Concerning journal articles, they are a key source in doing historical research. It is wise to search for relevant articles on your topic, in addition to consulting books written by historians. Two very good databases with which to begin are Historical Abstracts, which covers the history of the world from 1450 onward, and America: History & Life, which covers the discovery period onward for North America.  These databases index over 800 journals. The database Iter: the Gateway to the Middle ages and the Renaissance provides articles and books on the period of 400CE to 1700CE. It should be searched in addition to Historical Abstracts for any topics involving this period. Other databases, such as JSTOR,  Project Muse, and Academic Search Elite also contain history journal articles from dozens of history journals. JSTOR, however, does not contain the most current four years.
  2. Do not overlook the foot/endnote references in the books (and articles) you locate, especially the newer and more substantial books. This is a means to see what sources the historian consulted in writing about your topic.
  3. Interlibrary Loan. In pursuing your research, you may well find it useful or necessary to consult works that are not available in the Le Moyne College Library. Le Moyne Library's Interlibrary Loan service makes it possible for you to borrow materials, or receive photocopied articles, from libraries throughout North America.  It is necessary, however, to begin work early, since it normally takes several days to receive materials through Interlibrary Loan.
  4. Library’s Research Guide for History. Think of this web page as your toolbox for your history course research, second only to this handbook. Contact information for the history librarian is there along with the tools you need for an overview of a topic in order to get started (e.g., encyclopedias dedicated just to history that you may use for informational, though not bibliographic, purposes) and to find both primary and secondary sources. The section on primary sources provides links to those authoritative web sites that have reproduced primary sources. If the primary source you use is online and from one of these sites, your professor will accept it as legitimate. Check with your professor about any primary sources you are considering using if they are from any other Internet resources not listed here.

Keeping Notes About your Sources

II.    Recording information about your sources for your bibliography and notes   

When using your primary and secondary sources, make sure you record the following for each item because you’ll need this information for your bibliography.

  • Name of author (both last and first names).
  • Title of Work.
  • Number of edition (if there are several).
  • Number of volumes (if there are several).
  • City of publication.
  • Name of publishing company.
  • Date of publication.
  • For articles in newspapers or periodicals, list first and last page numbers, the volume number of the periodical, and the date.
  • URL
  • Name of database

Evaluating Your Sources

III.    Evaluating the quality of your sources

All pieces of evidence are not equivalent in accuracy; those of equivalent accuracy may not be equivalent in relevance; and those of equivalent relevance may not be equivalent in importance. Some sources are useful, scholarly, and precise, while others are misleading, vague, and worthless. You can find poor source materials for almost any topics; these poor sources are both in libraries and on the internet.  

Fortunately, historians have developed a number of guidelines for the evaluation of sources:

I.    Questions you should ask yourself about primary sources:

  1. Is the document authentic? Is it what it purports to be? Or is it a forgery?
  2. If it authentic, how can we know if it is reliable? Through internal criticism, we can apply the following benchmarks of reliability.
    1. Who wrote or said it?
    2. Was he in a position to know the truth about what he reported?
    3. What was his reputation for competence, accuracy, thoroughness, and integrity?
    4. Was he an interested party? What was his purpose in recording or reporting? Was he trying to tell a balanced story, or sell a particular point of view?
    5. Is the source internally consistent? consistent with other, comparable reports? consistent with known facts? consistent with your own general or specific knowledge? consistent with common sense? Can you explain the inconsistencies with other sources? Differences of opinion, fact, and analysis exist in both primary and secondary sources. These should be noted as you research, and can often be included in your analysis (i.e., your paper), but only if you understand where they come from and why.
  3. If the source is both authentic and reliable, you may be reasonably certain of the accuracy of what it says  - but its meaning may not be clear to you. Secondary sources will then prove helpful. 


II. Questions you should ask yourself about secondary sources:

What quantity of information was available to the author? Since the source was published, has new information come to light which, had it been available earlier, would have affected the author's interpretation?

  1. Is the author’s publisher reputable? Scholarly book presses and journals have stringent review processes for manuscript submissions.  Check the publisher’s web site to determine whether a “blind peer review” process is in place.
  2. Did the author commit inadvertent factual errors which have since been corrected by other historians, or by later editions of the same source?
  3. Was the author an interested party to the events being described? Was he trying to tell a balanced story, or support a particular point of view?
  4. Are the hallmarks of consistency, as listed in 2(e) above, met by this source?  


In addition, examine your secondary sources according to the following criteria:

  1. Look at what sources were used by the author of the source you are consulting.  Primary sources are usually preferable; they are first hand reports, including private papers, autobiographies, published memoirs and diaries, eyewitness accounts, contemporary newspaper/periodicals/pamphlets, institutional records, and government documents. (You should use primary sources in the preparation of your own paper). Secondary sources are valuable tools that can help historians interpret primary sources and understand their meaning, but no author should rely solely on secondary works. In addition, beware of the author who offers no footnotes at all, or who engages in polemics, emotionalism, or the explanation of complicated events by a single cause.
  2. Consider how the author expresses him/herself. Incomprehensible sentences and sloppy organization are usually indicative of poor scholarship. Sources which make mistakes in matters of detail should be suspected of errors in larger matters. What credence can we place in a book that states that Bill Clinton was a Republican? Or in a recent biography of Benjamin Franklin, in which the hero dies in the wrong year?
  3. Consider the age of the source. Generally, you should always use the most recent secondary sources available, so that you will have a better chance of citing state-of-the-art opinion. Older secondary sources are useful if historians consider them “classics” in their fields. If they are not so considered, their interpretations may have been overturned or superseded by more recent scholarship.
  4. Cross-check the source. The assertions of one source should always be verified with reference to the opinions of another. An author whose interpretations consistently run counter to the consensus of scholarly judgment should be handled with caution, although his/her opinions might be useful as a contrast with established judgment. This, of course, does not mean that unorthodox views are always incorrect - merely that the student must evaluate them with care.
  5. Are the source's interpretations and assertions consistent with common sense? You should view with skepticism books which allege, with seemingly irrefutable logic, that the Holocaust never happened; that Ronald Reagan was a Soviet agent; that King Louis XVII escaped from France and settled on a farm in upstate New York; that Lenin was poisoned on the orders of Stalin; or that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Nearly anything can be proven by the selective assembly and manipulation of individually valid facts.  Politicians use this technique frequently, but historians should avoid it because they must attempt to provide as “accurate” a representation of what happened in the past as possible.
  6. Is the author a reputable professional historian? Oftentimes the historian’s academic credentials and institutional affiliation at the time s/he wrote the source are mentioned in the source itself. Dig a bit further, however. Here are some sources that will provide more information about the historian’s reputation and perhaps even his/her philosophical approach to history: book reviews can be found in (a.) the two history databases (America:  History & Life, and Historical Abstracts) by searching on the historian’s name and the title of the book, and limiting your search to reviews; or (b.) for older books, use Book Review Digest (the library has 1905 to 1994) for the year the book was published and the year afterwards. This set is in the second floor bookstacks, found at AI3.B66. You can also find the historian’s credentials from the official web page of the institution where s/he currently works or from the historian’s own web page. Checking for the historian in the Biography Illustrated Plus database is another option. This can be found on the Noreen Reale Falcone Library’s web page under “Databases by Name.”  Finally, there is The Blackwell Dictionary of Historians, found in the library’s reference section (REF D 14. B58 1988).
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