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Tips for historical research

What are Primary Sources?

Anything that has been created by a person who witnessed or experienced an event as a contemporary would be a primary source.  --Tim Watts

Some types of primary sources:

  • letters
  • diaries
  • autobiographies
  • contemporaneous newspaper articles (published at the time of the event)
  • contemporaneous government documents (published or written at the time of the event)
  • contemporaneous film footage (recorded at the time of the event)
  • oral histories
  • photographs

What are Secondary Sources?

Secondary sources may:

  • be written after the fact/event
  • interpret
  • analyze
  • summarize
  • place an event or person within a social or historical context

Secondary sources can include:

  • biographies
  • encyclopedias
  • journal artricles
  • magazine articles
  • books (such as histories, although some books can include primary source materials like diaries, letters, interviews)
  • web pages (although some web pages include primary sources)
  • documentaries (although some documentaries can include primary sources like contemperaneous film footage, interviews)

Search Terms

Be flexible. Unlike chemistry, when a chemical compound has a very precise name that everyone uses, history is more changeable.

Things to consider when you are researching:

Spelling of family names:

While historians and time may have settled on a particular spelling of a family name, such as Lovelace, the spelling in contemporaneous documents like wills, letters, and the census can vary wildly. Keep an eye out for alternative spellings like: Lovelass or Loveless. Use context like location (state, town) or occupation (lawyer, farmer) to help determine if you are talking about the right person or family.

Location, location, location:

Experiment with your focus on location. Researchers may broadly refer to America or the Colonies. They may also only discuss a specific colony/state, a town, or region, or even a geographical feature. If you are researching something in Frederick, MD, you may find yourself looking at sources that variously describe:

  • America
  • Colonies
  • Maryland
  • Frederick
  • Frederick Town
  • Monocacy River
  • Piedmont

Changes in terminology:

When we go shopping today, we go to the store. Articles about the 17th and 18th century America use "store" to refer to storing materials. Shop or mercantile appear to be more commonly used when referring to a business that sells fabric or nails.

As you read, be sensitive to the changing language. Then, go back and try another search using the new terms that you've encountered. The Oxford English Dictionary is a great resource when you are trying to decipher historical terms.

Social Changes:

When you research history, you are going to discover that labels and phrases are laden with social, political, and ethical connotations and may seem to reflect one perspective over another.

There are words that I would never use today when referring to ethnic, racial, or religious groups. However, if I'm looking for contemperaneous sources or articles published a few decades ago, I'm going to have to be aware of the terminology used then, not today. A simple example is African American, Black, and Negro -- all terms that were used throughout the 20th century.

Depending upon the author, you may find articles and books talking about the Japanese American internment camps or concentration camps during World War II.


Sara K. Kearns's picture
Sara K. Kearns
203 Hale Library

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Encyclopedias and Other Overviews

Researching an historical event or person for the first time? Want an overview to place everything in context before you start digging deeper? Try these sources!


CLIO Notes

CLIO Notes offers a birds eye view of history by permitting researchers to scan history chronologically, select events or movements from that chronology, and read brief synopsis those events. CLIO Notes also offers suggested search terms that can be used to find articles.
CLIO Notes can be found in two databases: America: History and Life (U.S. and Canadian history) and Historical Abstracts (world history).

To access CLIO Notes, choose the appropriate database (for example, if you are researching Tianamen Square, you'd go to Historical Abstracts.
The link to CLIO Notes is in the blue bar at the very top of the screen.



We have many history encyclopedias in K-State Libraries. A quick way to search our catalog for a relevant encyclopedia is to do a keyword search for your topic, plus the words history and encyclopedia. In some cases you can leave off "history." For instance if you are researching the Ottoman Empire, a defined historical period (and empire!) you can forego "history."

For example, I am interested in the history of women, so in the search box, I'll enter: women history encyclopedia and then set the option to Search by: Keyword. Notice that the search tool automatically places an and in between each term. This is just the search engine telling itself to only bring back records that include all of those words.

The cool thing, is that once I've found even one title that looks relevant, I can either write down the call number and go to that section in the library and browse to find more information, or use the subject headings to find other, similar titles.