A Starting Point Guide to Research for History Students
Professor Catherine Lavender, Department of History, CSI-CUNY
I: Preparing to Do Research
- Before you even begin the process of researching, you have several tasks to address. Spending some time on these steps before you get to the library or archive will make your valuable research time more profitable.
- --Think carefully about your research topic.
- --If you have been given a specific question or problem to answer in your research, review your assignment and be certain that you understand it fully before you set off. Read over any materials which have been provided to you. Discuss it with your professor and with other students. Make a list of questions which you may need to discuss with your professor during office hours or in-class discussion about the project.
- --If you have been given a more open-ended project for which you must identify the topic of research, think about ways you can focus your research. Be sure that your own research question is neither too broad nor too narrow. Also, try to think of an original slant on your topic that will make the project more rewarding for you to spend time on.
- --Assess the time and resources that you will need for research.
- --Make plans for uninterrupted time when you can work on your project, well in advance of the due date. Work out a schedule so that your non-school responsibilities will not interfere unduly with your ability to spend sufficient time in the library or archive. Since that uninterrupted research time is especially valuable and difficult to secure, make sure that every moment of it will be as productive as possible by preparing ahead of time and planning carefully.
- --Review the library resources you will need to use, and examine the most productive ways to gain access to them. Make notes about when the libraries and archives you will be using will be open, and record a contact number so that you can confirm the hours in order to schedule your visit. It may make more sense to travel farther to a library which has all of the resources you need if you can set aside a chunk of time to use them. Be sure to check the resources available in a variety of libraries--the CSI and other CUNY campuses, New York Public Branch Libraries, and the Research Library in Manhattan--and archives which hold the materials you need to use.
- --Make a list of key terms and ideas pertaining to your research question.
- --Ask the Reference Librarians to help you compile these lists from reference works they have available in the Reference Department. Remember that there are several systems of classification for standard search terms, including Library of Congress and Dewey classification systems.
II: Beginning Research in the Library
The first thing to do in any library or archive is to figure out the "lay of the land" -- where the reference department is, what the circulations policies are, what help is available, etc. You should feel free to approach the Reference librarians for guidance; they are professional researchers, and are experts in research generally and in their own libraries specifically. They are the most valuable resource in any library, as they can help you to find the information in the most efficient way.
When asking the Reference librarians for assistance, you may need to briefly explain what you are looking for; remember to be brief, but remember also that the librarian may think of ways for you to tackle your research problem that never occured to you. Don't miss the opportunity to discuss your research question with them.
Most research in the library will start in the Reference room or at the Public Access Catalog. Refer to The Library as a Starting Point for Research page for specific pointers about library research.
Do not overlook the usefulness of reference materials as a starting point for research. Dictionaries and encyclopedias of biography, published bibliographies, and other reference materials can provide valuable background information and direct you to specialized research materials in the circulating holdings.
III: Beginning Research in the Archive
An archive is much like a library; in fact, many archives are located within libraries. Archives specialize in research materials which do not circulate, most of which are unpublished "manuscript" resources. Archives have as their mission to make materials available to serious researchers and to protect the materials for posterity. As a result, many archives have rules of conduct which are much stricter than libraries, governing access to materials, writing materials which may be used, security measures, prior arrangements for viewing resources, and the like.
Because of the special responsibilities of archives to preserve materials, researchers must usually make extra preparations to use archival materials. You should contact the archive as early as possible before your visit to learn the rules governing access, and should be prepared to make an appointment to use the materials. Because of these extra precautions, many students find archives intimidating to use at first. But archives want researchers to visit and to use their materials; that is their reason for being. So don't be intimidated.
The point made above about the necessity of asking librarians for guidance is doubly true of asking archivists for guidance in their archives. While there are general standards which govern the arrangement of archival materials, the wide variation in manuscript collections means that every archive is different. Even the most experienced researcher will need to ask for assistance on the first visit to an unfamiliar archive. Archivists expect researchers to ask for guidance.
To identify the location of archival materials about your topic within the United States, consult The Library of Congress's National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (commonly referred to as NUCMC, or "Nuk-muk") is now searchable online. This is an index of archival collections in the United States by topic, location, and personal name.
IV: The Internet as an Additional Resource
It is important, first of all, to point out that the internet, while simple to use, is a highly unreliable resource for research. It should be used as a corroborating resource only, never as a replacement for library and archive resources. Any resources found online must be rigorously evaluated before they can be utilized, and, in particular, any resources found on domains other than .edu, .org, or .gov should be treated with extreme skepticism; in the end, internet sites are simply not acceptable as scholarly resources. For guidelines on evaluating online resources, refer to Evaluating a Website.
That said, however, the internet can be a real boon to the careful researcher. Online resources such as bibliographies can point you to useful published sources (which can then be read in their original formats), and even online material which should not be cited as a source may lead you to search in more traditional research sources for terms which might not have occured to you otherwise. In addition, one can often find archival materials online at sites like the National Archives or the Library of Congress which are worthy of analysis and citation in research projects.
Check with your professor about citing online resources. Because online sources do not undergo the editorial and gatekeeping processes that published refereed books and articles do, many professors do not allow the citation of online resources in student papers. In turn, because of the complicated process of evaluation students must engage in in order to cite an online source as reliable, most students will find that more traditionally published sources, such as books or journal articles, are in fact easier to cite and use.
- There are several useful search engines for online materials; try using the search option which allows you to designate the domain name, and enter .edu, .gov, and .org:
- Northern Light, at www.northernlight.com, is an excellent search engine.
- Google, at www.google.com, and AllTheWeb, at www.bos2.alltheweb.com/, boast the most scanned pages.
- HotBot, at www.hotbot.com, and exCite, at www.excite.com, are also excellent search engines with the domain limitation option, which allows you to limit your searches to sites with addresses ending with the .edu designation.
- --Several simple notes about notetaking:
- --No matter how interesting the information you find is, unless you know where you got it and can direct someone else back to the same place, that information is useless. It cannot be cited. So it is essential to the research process to have a system of notetaking that will take you back to your source.
- --If you include information without citing where you got it from, you are plagiarizing. This is true even if you do not use the same language used in the original source or if you paraphrase.
- --Develop a simple system of keeping notes and be consistent about it. If you prefer to photocopy relevant material and then use a highlighter on the photocopy, do so. If you would rather take notes on 3x5" cards or on a computer, do that. Find a system that works for you and stick with it.
- --A system of notetaking that "works" is one which will allow you to locate the source for any information you wish to include in your project or essay. Many professors will ask you to document your research methods by providing copies of your notes, so take good care of them.
VI: Writing Up Your Research
Once you have completed sufficient research, you can begin to assemble your information into the project or essay which you have been assigned. Take this opportunity to review the assignment -- before you start writing -- so that you are clear about your goals. Be certain that your finished product addresses all of the requirements of the assignment. When you sit down to write, you may find it useful to refer to On Writing a Research Essay. Enjoy!
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