Sources used for Written Assignments for History

 Types of Sources | Quotations | Citations | Internet Sources | Research Plan

Sources are where historians get their information about what happened in the past.  Like the clues at a murder scene for a detective, they provide the facts that support historical arguments and conclusions.  As a student writing a paper about some aspect of history, you also will need to go to sources.  You cannot just write something from your own "feelings" or "experience."  You must instead use sources that record and describe past events and people.  

Whenever you write an assignment be sure to use the suggested minimum number of sources as listed in the assignment's description in the syllabus.  Using more sources will improve your grade (as well as teach you more about the subject).  You should also use the proper kinds of sources, as detailed in the syllabus.  

Always, you should be aware about what kind of sources you are using.  The descriptions below can help you with that.  

The first challenge with sources is finding them.  The second challenge is using them.  

For more on evaluating and using sources as part of a research project go to "The Historical Method and Documentary Research."  The Corgan Library has numerous study guides, which might help you begin your research.  They are available in the library or online.  

A. Types of Sources

There are different ways to organize sources.  One basic division is between non-written (remains, buildings, coins, statues, clothing, etc.) artifacts, and written documents (records, diaries, newspapers, treaties, etc.).  For most courses, you will only need to understand written sources.

Among written sources, historians usually assign three levels of relevance:  Primary, Secondary and Tertiary.  These categories take their names from the Latin for one, two or three steps removed from the original event. 


Third level sources of history are generalized surveys of a specific subject.  Such sources often include things like textbooks, handbooks, dictionaries, and encyclopedias.  Articles in these may be very accurate, many having been written by specialists.  But only a limited amount of space can be devoted to each topic, so coverage tends to be superficial.  

A tertiary source is often the best place to begin research on a topic. Since handbook articles often include useful bibliographies, they can show you where to begin looking for useful secondary sources.   And they often describe some of the basic historical controversies, agreements and gaps in knowledge about its subject.  

If you use such a source, be sure to cite it in your notes or bibliography.  Real detail and understanding, however, only comes from looking at secondary sources.  


Second level sources of history are usually produced by people who, after the historical event have examined Books, journals, and magazines are the most common, and many are available in the college library or through  inter-library loan. The best are produced by trained, professional historians who specialize in a particular field of history.  These sources should probably form the bulk of what you research.  

Historical training offers an assurance that solid standards of quality have been upheld by being "refereed."  Historians do this through "peer review"--having other historians read and critique works before they are published.  The better publishers and scholarly journals do this, while some publishers and popular magazines do not.  Thus some history writing gains little respect from the majority of history scholars, and should be viewed with skepticism.  You should try to inform yourself about the scholarly standing of the source you are using.  

Depending on your subject, there will be many different kinds of secondary sources available, or just a few.   You should try to select a variety of sources, seeking to cover all the aspects of a historical problem.  
Increasingly commonly used are sources from the internet.  But be wary of sources drawn from the world wide web, since too many are produced by reckless amateurs.  See Internet Source Evaluation.


 First level sources bring you closest to the actual event.  Many are actual artifacts around us, like statues, buildings, or tools.  We remain ignorant about the past, because people did not record events.  Or many records have been lost to history.  And sometimes sources are forbidden, such as the Bush Administration's Executive Order 13233 of November 1, 2001 with critiques.  

Without special training, though, you should mostly use published sources in the written word.  These include official public records (laws, administrative forms, speeches, judgments, treaties), press/journalist articles, eye-witness accounts, letters, diaries, biography/autobiography/memoir, historical writing, literature & philosophy, inscriptions, etc. Common to all primary sources is that they were produced at the time of the event to which they relate.  Unfortunately such primary sources are mostly in far off libraries, archives and museums.  

Fortunately you can also come into easy contact with primary sources that have been reprinted from original documents, photographed, turned into electronic media, translated, or otherwise edited.  While serious historians usually try to get to the originals, students can easily settle for reproductions and editions and translations of primary sources.  It is always beneficial to use as many primary sources as possible, even when not required.  

Links to good history subject directories to find sources:

King's College Corgan Library, History Sites, Primary Sources: <>.

Librarian's Index to the Internet: <>.

Internet Public Library:  <>.  

Library of Congress: <>.

Yahoo:  <>.

History Cooperative:

B. Quotations:

On most assignments, you may not use quotations.   You must use your own words, showing your own mastery of the material. That means rewriting and paraphrasing your sources. Check the syllabus whether you may quote your sources or not.  

As a rule of thumb, using more than two distinct words of another author must be marked as a quotation.  

If you are allowed to quote, all quotes must be properly cited. You must never use more than three of another person's words without quotation marks or, if the quote is longer than 3 lines, a block of single-spaced and indented text.  Either method is followed by a citation to the original source.  For more information see citation.html and/or presentation.html.

C. Citations:

You must cite each and every quote, and/or all other factual information, judgments or analysis drawn from your sources, even when you use your own wording. 

Citation is important because it reveals the quality of work that supports your writing.  The kind of sources you use, and how you use them, enables a reader to better evaluate your arguments.  A good citation should always provide enough information so that another person can find the source you have used.  

Citations must be in the TURABIAN FORMAT.  For more information see citation.html and/or presentation.html.

 Types of Sources | Quotations | Citations | Internet Sources| Research Plan


Copyright © MMXII by Brian A. Pavlac
Last Revision: 2012 February 7

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