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History: Developing a topic or research question

Suggested steps for developing a topic or question

  • Use the sources -- primary and secondary -- to guide the development of a topic or research question.
  • Conduct  initial research in both primary and secondary sources to test the feasibility of your topic and let the available evidence mold your research question.
    • Search for primary documents. Historical research consists primarily of constructing arguments based on primary documents. You will want to spend significant time exploring which documents are available that are related to your topic. These documents may include photographs, newspaper or magazine articles, recordings, public records, and so on. As always, consult a librarian if you are unsure where to start.
    • Read scholarly literature (secondary sources). Reading academic literature is critical for you to identify the questions that have not yet been sufficiently studied, to locate your topic within a particular context, and to ask further questions. If you are uncertain how to find the books and articles you may need, you should ask a librarian for help.
  • Define your focus neither too broadly or narrowly. A good research question defines the focus of your research project and its scope.
    • Example:  I am studying _________________because I want to know_______________in order to help my readers understand____________________. 
  • Research is an iterative process.  As you discover new information or ideas, you may need to redo your database searches to locate additional primary and secondary sources.  By constantly reviewing what you have found and learning, you can continually revise, develop new ideas, and make improvements.
  • Talk to professors and librarians.
  • Ask questions at every step to help you decide where to take your research next.