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History: Getting Started: A Guide to Research

Where to Start

Finding A Topic

There are several things to consider when choosing a topic for your research. Sometimes professors will provide a list of acceptable topics. If you don’t have such a list, flip through your text book, paying attention to chapter summaries, section titles, and any discussion questions. These will often provide ideas, as will the class syllabus.

    EXAMPLE: In an American History class, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation

Narrowing a Topic

Ok, so now you have a topic (the Emancipation Proclamation). That’s a pretty big topic for a 5-7 page paper, or even a 20 page paper. It needs to be narrowed down.

You may already have an idea of how to narrow your topic from looking through your text book. Another way to generate ideas is doing a quick internet search or reading about your topic in an encyclopedia or other reference book.

 EXAMPLE: The original purpose of the Emancipation Proclamation and how it came to mean freedom for all slaves.

 Writing a Thesis Statement

The next step is to write your thesis statement to guide your research.  Sometime students skip this step, or attempt to write the thesis after they’ve done their research. A well-written thesis statement is a great help in guiding research so it’s best to write it prior to beginning your search.

For advice on writing a thesis statement, visit the Purdue OWL.

  EXAMPLE:  In issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln’s main purpose was not the freeing of slaves but rather to make the issue of slavery the central issue of the war.

Your thesis statement may change as your research progresses. You may narrow your focus and need to change your thesis statement, or you may even find your opinion changing as you learn more about your topic.
Preparing for Research: Choosing potential resources

There are several things to consider when thinking about where to look for information.

Do I need basic information about my topic?

If you are not familiar with your topic, you will want to begin by looking at reference books, doing a quick internet search, or reviewing your textbook. To find reference books, search our electronic reference collection, Oxford Reference Online, or use OneSearch to find call numbers for books in our print reference collection.

Are there requirements on the number and type of resources? For example, do your sources have to be scholarly? Are you allowed to use websites? Do you need a variety of sources such as books, journal articles, and primary sources?

In this example, you will need at least one primary resource: the Emancipation Proclamation itself. Other primary resources such as letters may be useful. Journal articles and books will be useful secondary sources.

Where are you likely to find this information? Suggested library resources for history research:

Academic Search Premier (An EBSCO database with some scholarly articles)  
JSTOR (a database with scholarly journal articles)
OneSearch (to find books and videos)
Oxford Reference Online (for background information)
Biography Resource Center (for biographical information)

What about using websites?

If your professor allows the use of websites, be careful to choose authoritative sites. Recommend sites are listed under the Websites tab above. A guide to evaluating websites can be found here and the university librarians would be happy to help you find and evaluate websites. Websites can be an excellent way to find primary sources, as many museums and universities have digitized their collections of letters, etc.

Brainstorming Search Terms

When searching library databases, you need to choose search terms to focus your search. Typing in complete sentences or phrases generally does not work. Look at your topic and brainstorm a list of terms associated with that topic. For example, the list for my topic might look something like this: Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln, Civil War, slavery, constitution, England

Think about what you hope to say about your topic. Reference materials, your textbook, and general web searches can also give you ideas on good search terms. As you research and find sources, you may find new search terms to use.

 How to Use the Library's Databases

For information on searching the library's databases and other resources, see our tutorials or ask a librarian for assistance.


  • Remember that research is really “re-search." The more you learn, the more questions you may have. The need to repeat steps in the research process does not mean you're doing something wrong.
  • Remember that you won’t necessarily find articles on your exact topic. For example, if you are writing a paper comparing Frederick Douglass and Barack Obama, don't plan on only using articles comparing the two. Think of the similarities and search for articles accordingly, then make the connections yourself. Both men are biracial, for example, so look for articles discussing how this shaped Douglass and other articles on how it shaped Obama.
  • Keep track of the resources you’ve used. This will make completing your bibliography much easier and helps avoid plagiarism.
  • Create accounts in different databases to help organize information. For example, EBSCO allows you to create a MyEBSCOhost account which will easily store your articles and format your citations.
  • Include any synonyms for the terms you list. For example, if you are looking for information on World War I, you will also want to search for the “Great War” especially in resources dated prior to World War II.

Getting Help

Librarians are trained and experienced in helping students find information. If you have trouble with any part of the research process, contact a librarian for assistance.

Reference Librarian

Maureen McMahan's picture
Maureen McMahan
260.399.7700 x6059


Lee & Jim Vann Library

Pope John Paul II Center

First and Second Floor

Room 101 & 201