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Research Guides

Why Use Secondary Sources?


The raison d'être of historians is to explore the past and attempt to describe, explain, interpret and analyze it. Historians use evidence from the past (primary sources) to support their interpretations which are most often published in the form of books and journal articles (secondary sources). So why should you use secondary sources?

  • Secondary sources provide historical/broader context for a topic. 
  • Secondary sources are written by expert scholars. Before publication academic books and articles are vetted by other scholars in a process known as peer review. 
  • Secondary sources provide historiographical context for a topic. In other words, how has this topic been interpreted by past historians. History is not stagnant but is constantly being reinterpreted in light of new evidence and new outlooks.
  • Secondary sources are based on evidence (primary sources) that are cited in the footnotes and bibliography. Secondary sources are often a quick way to identify important primary sources that you too may wish to use in your research paper. Look for published primary sources such as books, articles and government reports and then search UW Libraries Search or the other sources listed in this guide to see if we have a copy.

Start Here for Books


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UW Libraries Search is your starting point for finding books at the UW Libraries.In addition UW Libraries Search also includes citations to articles (often linked to fulltext). Use the options on the "Refine My Results" toolbar on the left of your search results screen. You can use these refinements to filter your results to books, by language, by library location, etc. 
  • To search for books by keywords just enter your terms into the search box -- for example: spain civil war britain
  • To search for a book by title use quotations around the first few words of the book -- for example: "spanish civil war and the british left"
  • To search for a book by author type in the last name followed by the first name in quotations -- for example: "behlmer george"

Start Here for Articles

Historical Abstracts is the best database to use when looking for academic journal articles in the field of modern world history including British & Irish history for the period 1450 to the present.

Search Historical Abstracts


Link your search terms using the AND connector. For example: spain and civil war and women. On the search results screen, use the options on the left toolbar to narrow your search results. To find the fulltext of the article (if not provided directly in the database), click on the "Check for Full Text" button and work your way through the screens. Not all articles will be online, some may only be in print, others may not be available at the UW. Articles from journals which the UW does not own can be requested via Interlibrary loan.

Other Useful Databases