How to do Research on History

History Research Guide 1How to do research on history? The birth of civilization, the invention of the first gas-powered automobile, the outbreak of the Civil War, the new developments in culture, fashion, and technology, and the passing of time itself all share something in common: They are all major moments in American and world history. Literally hundreds of historical references are accessible in print or electronic form, each providing a unique perspective on history.

One of the most reliable and important sources for your research paper is books, including general references and illustrated histories as well as printed indexes and abstracts specializing in U.S. and world history, all searchable through your local public, school, or college library’s catalog and collections, including additional published works, such as interpretive and analytical secondary sources, about your chosen research paper topic.

Likewise, many electronic resources, including CD-ROM and online databases, available at most libraries provide access to full-text articles on all areas of history, including retrospective collections of major newspapers from the 1800s and earlier, published in newspapers, magazines, and academic journals. Other primary sources included in your research paper can be original documents and artifacts from university and museum archival collections, with many documents and images accessible on the Web, including the Library of Congress’s American Memory Project. Selected sources in this category as recommended by librarians and researchers follow.

Selected Subject Headings

Listed below is a sample of a few broad Library of Congress subject headings—made up of one word or more representing concepts under which all library holdings are divided and subdivided by subject—which you can search under and use as subject terms when searching online library catalogs for preliminary and/or additional research, such as books, audio and video recordings, and other references, related to your topic. When researching materials on your topic, subject heading searching may be more productive than searching using simple keywords. However, keyword searching when using the right search method (Boolean, etc.) and combination of words can be equally effective in finding materials more closely relevant to your research paper topic.

Suggested Research Topics in History

  • African-Americans
  • America—Discovery and exploration
  • Civil Rights—United States
  • Civil War, 1861–1865
  • Confederates States of America
  • Depressions—1929
  • Indians of North America
  • Progressives (United States politics)
  • Reconstruction
  • Revolution, 1775–1783
  • Southern States
  • Stock Market Crash, 1929
  • United States—Foreign relations
  • United States History—1873–1865
  • United States—History—1919–1933
  • United States—History—20th Century
  • West (United States)
  • Women—Suffrage—United States
  • World History
  • World War, 1939–1945

Selected Keyword Search Strategies and Guides

Most online library indexes and abstracts and full-text article databases offer basic and advanced “keyword” searching of virtually every subject. In this case, combine keyword terms that best define your thesis question or topic using the Boolean search method (employing “and” or “or”) to find research most suitable to your research paper topic.

If your topic is “blacks and civil rights,” for example, enter “blacks” and “civil rights” with “and” on the same line to locate sources directly compatible with the primary focus of your paper. To find research on more specific aspects of your topic, alternate with one new keyword at a time with “and” in between (for example, “blacks and civil rights leaders,” “blacks and equal rights,” “blacks and racism,” “blacks and segregation,” etc.).

For additional help with keyword searching, navigation or user guides for online indexes and databases by many leading providers—including Cambridge Scientific Abstracts, EBSCO, H.W. Wilson, OCLC, Ovid Technologies, ProQuest, and Thomson Gale—are posted with direct links on library Web sites to guides providing specific instruction to using whichever database you want to search. They provide additional guidance on how to customize and maximize your search, including advanced searching techniques and grouping of words and phrases using the Boolean search method—of your topic, of bibliographic records, and of full-text articles, and other documents related to the subject of your research paper.

Selected Source and Subject Guides

History Research Guide 2As part of your preliminary research to find appropriate resources for your topic, information source and research guides are available at most public and academic libraries and are keyword searchable through your library’s online catalog (to search and locate guides, enter your “subject” followed by these keywords one search at a time: “information sources,” “reference sources,” and/or “research guide”). Printed guides available for this subject area include

Reference Sources in History: An Introductory Guide, 2nd ed., by Ronald H. Fritze, Brian E. Counts, and Louis A. Vyhnanek (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABCCLIO, 2004)

The U.S. History Highway: A Guide to Internet Resources, edited by Dennis A. Trinkle and Scott A. Merriman, 356 pages (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2002)

United States History: A Selective Guide to Information Sources, by Ron Blazek and Anna H. Perrault, 411 pages (Englewood, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited, 1994)

In addition to these sources of research, most college and university libraries offer online subject guides arranged by subject on the library’s Web page; others also list searchable course-related “LibGuides” by subject. Each guide lists more recommended published and Web sources—including books and references, journal, newspaper and magazines indexes, full-text article databases, Web sites, and even research tutorials—that you can access to expand your research on more specific issues and relevant to your subject.

Selected Books and References

General Source

Handbook for Research in American History: A Guide to Bibliographies and Other Reference Works, 2nd ed., by Francis Paul Prucha, 214 pages (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994)

Although slightly outdated, this handbook, first published in 1987 and revised in 1994, remains a useful tool for locating many print and electronic sources for historical research. The book is divided into two sections. The first section highlights bibliographies, indexes to periodical literature, maps and atlases, and government publications. The second section incorporates chapters discussing various other reference sources for broad subject areas, such as military history, and more specialized topics, such as diplomatic history. An author-title-subject index offers easy cross-referencing of subjects.

U.S. History

Dictionary of American History, 3rd ed., edited by Stanley I. Kutler, 10 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003)

Originally published in 1940, this fully revised edition of the 10-volume library reference offers quick access to more than 4,000 definitive articles, ranging from 100 to 800 words in length, on a broad spectrum of topics in American history. The new edition includes more than 800 new entries. Incorporated in text for the first time are more than 1,500 illustrations and 300 maps.

Encyclopedia of American History, edited by Gary B. Nash, 11 vols., 4,864 pages (New York: Facts On File, 2003)

This 11-volume reference offers in-depth coverage of the most important individuals, events, and topics in U.S. history. Unlike most encyclopedias, this reference is arranged chronologically and organized by era. The encyclopedia was developed and supervised by Gary B. Nash, a professor of American history at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of the National Standards for United States History. Each volume was edited by leading scholars and specialists in the field.

Encyclopedia of American Military History, 3rd ed., by Spencer C. Tucker, 1,200 pages (New York: Facts On File, 2003)

Written by military historian Spencer C. Tucker, this well-organized and easy-to-use encyclopedia presents more than 1,200 entries on the subject of American military history from the colonial era to the “war on terror” beginning with the events of September 11, 2001. Illustrated by more than 200 black-and-white photographs and 50 maps, this three-volume set documents seemingly every aspect of military history—military leaders, wars, campaigns, battles, events, famous soldiers, military branches, key technological developments, overviews of weapons systems, and more. Includes a glossary, bibliography, and index.

Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History, edited by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, 5 vols., 2,733 pages (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2000)

With a foreword written by Pulitzer Prize–winning author James M. McPherson, this five-volume reference set chronicles the Civil War in an easy-to-read A-to-Z format. Combining the efforts of editors and more than 300 contributors, this remarkable reference offers more than 1,600 concise articles—ranging from a few paragraphs to several pages—on seemingly every aspect of this period in American history. Supplementing the entries are more than 500 black-and-white illustrations, 75 maps, and more than 250 primary source documents that bring to life every battle, military life, and the war’s impact on society.

Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social and Military History, edited by Spencer C. Tucker, 3 vols., 1,196 pages (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)

This three-volume encyclopedia, written by the author of the Encyclopedia of American History, comprehensively covers the military, social, and political aspects of the Vietnam War. Content includes detailed articles on military tactics and weapon systems, biographies of communist leaders, and critical overviews of the antiwar movement, military strategy, and various nations. Following each entry is a bibliography of references. Volume 3 documents the history of the Vietnam War, highlighted by government memos, military telegrams, speeches, policy statements, and more.

The Oxford Companion to American Military History, edited by Richard Holmes, 1,408 pages (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000)

Featuring more than 1,000 entries, this book examines the American military history with factual and extensive essays, written by more than 500 leading scholars, on the major wars and battles, weapons, and leaders.

Reference Sources in History: An Introductory Guide, 2nd ed., by Ronald H. Fritze, Brian E. Coutts, and Louis A. Vyhnamek, 334 pages (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2004)

This annotated and updated volume exhaustively catalogs and summarizes more than 1,000 atlases, bibliographies, chronologies, encyclopedias, dictionaries, handbooks, and sourcebooks on practically every conceivable subject in history. More than 900 references are included, with bibliographic information cited for an additional 400 sources. This master reference work also includes guides to many history Web sites of interest to undergraduates, graduate students, academic researchers, and the general public.

The Timetables of American History, edited by Laurence Urdang, 544 pages (New York: Touchstone Books, 2001)

One of the best sources of its kind, this fascinating, updated single-volume reference provides a comprehensive account of American happenings—the people and events—in the arts, history, politics, science, technology, and more while simultaneously relating them to world events.

World History

Chronicle of the 20th Century, edited by Daniel Clifton, 1,486 pages (Liberty, Mo.: JL International Publishing, 1994)

This lavishly illustrated, entertaining reference, written in a newspaper-style format, chronicles everything about the 20th century—the people, places, events, fads and fashions, politics, personalities, wars, sports, science, and cinema.

Dictionary of Historic Documents, Revised Edition, by George C. Kohn, 656 pages (New York: Facts On File, 2003)

The only reference of its kind, the Dictionary of Historic Documents, Revised Edition describes and explains more than 2,400 major historic documents in world history, including their historical and social importance. Covered are key acts, agreements, bills, constitutions, court decisions, historic treaties, laws, letters, proclamations, speeches, and other writings, from the Code of Hammurabi to President George W. Bush’s “Freedom and Fear Are at War” speech. Includes a list of entries by category, a timetable of documents, an extensive bibliography, and index.

Dictionary of Wars, 3rd ed., by George C. Kohn, 704 pages (New York: Facts On File, 2006)

Spanning some 4,000 years, this revised book offers detailed summaries of all wars from the earliest in history to the present day. It contains more than 1,800 extensively cross-referenced entries, dealing with civil wars, global confl icts, mutinies, punitive expeditions, rebellions, revolutions, and undeclared wars throughout the world.

The Encyclopedia of World History: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, Chronologically Arranged, 6th ed., 1,243 pages (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001)

Perhaps the best single-volume reference available on the subject, this fully revised and updated edition, written by renowned historian Peter N. Stearns and 30 prominent historians, features a year-by-year and region-by-region chronicle of the history of the world. More than 20,000 authoritatively written entries span the millennia from prehistoric times to the year 2000. Entries cover civilizations, rulers, and historical figures, people, places, and trends, and much more.

Hammond Concise Atlas of World History, 6th ed., edited by Geoffrey Barraclough, 192 pages (Union, N.J.: Hammond, 2002)

Uniquely combines the visual details of a standard atlas with well-written, lively narrative of world history from ancient history through 2001.

A History of the Twentieth Century: The Concise Edition of the Acclaimed World History, by Martin Gilbert, 832 pages (New York: Perennial, 2002)

An extraordinary volume that chronicles in year-by-year fashion world events that shaped the 20th century. Documenting the cultural developments, disasters, religious and social movements, scientific advances, technological innovations, wars, and personalities of the century.

The Random House Timetables of History, 3rd ed., 320 pages (New York: Random House, 2008)

This revised pocket-sized reference provides a chronology of 7,000 years of world history, from the first civilization (4000–2000 BC) to the present. More than 5,000 significant moments in history are highlighted—in the arts, history, religion, and science—for easy reference.

20th Century Day by Day, edited by Daniel Clifton, 1,560 pages (New York: DK Publishing, 1999)

Ideal for students, researchers, and history buffs, this fully updated edition covers the important people, places, and events of the 20th century. Features thousands of color and black-and-white illustrations.

Selected Full-Text Article Databases

Academic Search Elite (Ipswich, Mass.: EBSCO Publishing, EBSCOHost, indexing/abstracting: 1984– , full text: 1990– )

Offers citations and some full text in wide range of academic areas, including business, social sciences, humanities, general academic, general science, education, and multicultural issues.

America Periodicals Series Online (Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI ProQuest, 1740–1900)

Full-text and digitized images of more than 1,000 American magazines and journals published between 1740 and 1900. Periodicals include special interest and general magazines, literary and professional journals, children’s and women’s magazines, and many other historically significant periodicals. Many historical topics of interest are covered, including the American Revolution, Reconstruction, and independence; slavery and emancipation; the changing role of women; advances in medicine and technology, and changes in politics, science, and religion.

HarpWeek (Greenwich, Conn.: Harper’s Weekly, 1857– )

A primary source for examining 19th-century American history on a week-by-week basis, HarpWeek contains scanned images, with interactively linked indexes, of Harper’s Weekly from the antebellum and Civil War eras (1857–1865) and Reconstruction period (1866–1871). Covering everything from front-line Civil War reports to the election of President Lincoln, full-text contents include editorials, news stories, illustrations, cartoons, and even advertisements.

History of the World (Parsippany, N.J.: Bureau of Development, Inc., 1994– )

This CD-ROM database contains six highly recognized reference sources on one disk—The Hutchinson Compact Chronology of World History, The Hutchinson Dictionary of World History, The Hutchinson Dictionary of Ideas, The Helicon Book of Days, J. M. Roberts’ Shorter History of the World, and Bing History of the World. The people, ideas, trends, and events that influenced the world since 10,000 BC are featured. There are more than 10,000 entries, quotations, tables, and feature articles, 600 illustrations, a chronology of 11,000 events, and more than 1,200 thematic chronologies. Books can be searched separately or collectively, and can be searched directly from your word processor or through Windows applications. “On This Day” anniversaries and history quizzes are among the added features.

History Resource Center: U.S. (Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale, precolonial– )

Online resource providing comprehensive full-text coverage of all aspects of American history and more than 50 key topics in U.S. history, among them, the Civil War, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, World War I, World War II, and more, as well as information from Macmillan Reference USA, Charles Scribner’s Sons, and other Gale printed sources, including biographies, encyclopedic articles, and others.

History Resource Center: World (Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale, 1900s– )

This electronic resource provides hundreds of full-text documents, along with thousands of images and maps and statistical data, from some 1,500 sources, including 110 academic and scholarly journals and 27 popular references on every major event in 20th-century world history.

JSTOR (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Journal Storage Project, 1996– )

This comprehensive online archive includes important scholarly journal literature covering many academic fields, including history.

MilitaryLibrary FullTEXT (Ipswich, Mass.: EBSCO Publishing, EBSCOHost, indexing: 1975, full text: 1990– )

Includes citations and some full-text access to more than 350 military and general-interest publications, 245 pamphlets, and indexing and abstracts for more than 380 magazines. Military publications indexed include Army Times, Defense, Military Review, and Parameters.

Palmer’s Full Text Online 1785–1870 (Ann Arbor, Mich.: ProQuest, 1785– )

Palmer’s Full Text Online provides access for students, researchers, and the general public to 1 million articles from The Times covering almost a century of British and world history.

ProjectMUSE (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990– )

Provides worldwide, networked subscription access to full-text articles from more 100 scholarly journals in the arts and humanities, social sciences, and mathematics.

Selected Periodicals

American Heritage (New York: American Heritage, 1947– , bimonthly)

This popular bimonthly magazine focuses on a wide range of issues related to American history and the American experience, discussing the arts, business, current and international affairs, changing lifestyles, and politics.

American Historical Review (Bloomington, Ind.: American Historical Association, 1895– , five times a year)

The official publication of the American Historical Association, this major historical journal is published five times yearly (February, April, June, October, and December). It includes scholarly articles and critical reviews of current publications in all fields of history. Each issue contains articles by leading scholars, and reviews of books and films.

Chronicon: An Electronic History Journal (Cork, Ireland: University College Cork, 1997– , annually) (

Published annually by the History Department of the University College Cork since 1997, this free e-journal features articles on all aspects of history with a particular focus on Irish history.

The English Historical Review (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1886– , quarterly)

First published in 1886, The English Historical Review, the oldest English-language scholarly historical journal in the world today, deals with all aspects of British, European, and world history since the classical era. Published quarterly, each issue includes articles and lively debates on medieval and modern themes, book reviews, and summaries of international literature. The English Historical Review is abstracted and indexed by such leading library databases as America: History and Life, Historical Abstracts, British Humanities Index, CSA Worldwide Political Science Abstracts, Periodicals Contents Index, and Sociological Abstracts. The full text and tables of contents of current and past journals are available online by subscription through JSTOR and Oxford Journals Online.

Essays in History (Charlottesville, Va.: Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia, 1954– , annually)

Founded as a print journal in 1954, this annual peer-reviewed journal is sponsored by the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia and has been published solely in electronic format since 1994. It features articles on all areas of history, including book reviews. Essays in History is indexed in the Historical Abstracts and America: History and Life databases. Current and past electronic editions and full-text articles are accessible at the journal’s main Web site (

The Historian (Kensington, R.I.: Phi Alpha Theta, 1938– , quarterly)

Found in libraries and institutions around the world, this distinguished journal features articles, interviews, and books by historians and graduate students in all fields of history. Continuously in print since the winter 1938 issue, the journal is sponsored by Phi Alpha Theta, an international society of history at the University of South Florida that promotes the study of history and encourages its student members to publish their scholarly works.

Journal of American History (Bloomington, Ind.: Organization of American Historians, 1914– , three times a year)

Published for more than 80 years by the Organization of American Historians, this leading print journal includes scholarly articles, reviews of current books, films, exhibitions, and Web sites of interest to historians, and historical essays on a wide range of topics. Full text of current issues of the Journal of American History is available online through History Cooperative.

Selected Web Sites

Electronic Texts Collections (

This large collection of links, developed by the History Department at Hanover College, features indexes and other resources on European, American, and world history.

Historical Text Archive (

Originally founded in 1990 in Mississippi as an anonymous FTP site, Historical Text Archive offers easy access to a collection of high-quality articles, books, essays, historical photos, and links to information on a wide range of historical subjects.

History Cooperative (Champaign, Ill.: The Cooperative, 2000– ) (

This site, created for history scholars and students alike, offers full-text access to current issues of many leading historical journals, including the American Historical Review, The History Teacher, Journal of American History, Law and History Review, Western Historical Quarterly, and many others.

HyperHistory Online (

Features more than 2,000 files on 3,000 years of world history; beneficial to students and historians; listed by people, history, events, and maps.

Internet Library of Early Journals (

A joint project completed in 1999 by the Universities of Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, and Oxford under the auspices of the eLib (Electronic Libraries) Programme, this Web site provides direct access to digital versions of 18th- and 19th-century journals together with bibliographic data. Among the 18th-century journals represented are Annual Register, Gentleman’s Magazine, and Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society; from the 19th century, The Builder, Blackwood’s Edinburg Magazine, and Notes and Queries.

Medieval Review (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute, Western Michigan University, 1993– ) (

Formerly known as Bryn Mawr Medieval Review, this all-electronic journal publishes reviews of current work in all areas of Medieval Studies since 1993. Published by the Medieval Institute at Western Michigan University, the publication offers searchable archives of past issues of interest to students and scholars around the world.

World History Archive (

For quick access to documents about specifi c topics or periods in history, this archive, arranged by geographical area and covering all regions of the world, features a collection of documents focusing on contemporary history, complete with search engine.

WWW Virtual Library: Military History (

Contains a vast collection of research tools with Web links to general and chronological resources, military history, journals, bibliographies, biographies, military museums, and more.

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