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How to Do Historical Research: 5 Tips for Studying History

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 3 min read

A popular aphorism declares that "those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it." Humans study history in part because social behaviors and global trends repeat themselves over time. If we understand how to study history, we can orient ourselves toward a future of progress rather than repeated mistakes.

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How to Do Historical Research: 5 Tips for Studying History

Historical research can be daunting to those with little past experience. Here are a few research tips and study skills to make historical research manageable and interesting:

  1. Keep the big picture in mind. If you approach your historical research as a big picture examination of a person or time period, you can make studying history into a creative activity, rather than just a bunch of memorization of historical data. As you do your research, think about broad trends and cultural themes that impacted the subjects you’re studying.
  2. Always take notes. If you're properly studying world history, United States history, or the history of a particular cultural phenomenon, you will be bombarded by facts—more facts than anyone could possibly memorize. To keep information manageable, you'll need to develop a note-taking habit. If you own your own history books, you can make notes in the margins of the text—although sticky notes are probably even better for finding the right spot in the book. Flashcards are also great, and they can double as study tools if you're preparing for a history exam down the line. Notes are useful for anyone studying history, from a high school student writing their first history paper to the chairman of a college history department studying original documents for a journal article.
  3. Be mindful of chronology. When you're studying a string of historical events, you need to know the chronological order in which they happened. This does not mean, however, that you need to present a historical research paper in chronological order. Professional historians often think in terms of broad trends and cultural changes and you should try to think in the same way.
  4. Consult primary sources. A primary source is something that was written, filmed, or recorded during the era you are studying. It could be a letter, a treaty, a photograph, a newspaper article, government documents, or an oral history from someone who lived during the time period. Secondary sources like history textbooks can be fantastic resources, but they still reflect the biases of their authors. When you're embarking on a research project, you can often go right to the source by reading, viewing, or listening to historical documents from the era you are studying. Good research projects always rely more on primary documents than secondary sources.
  5. Know where to find information. If you’re an amateur history student, you might start out your history research via an online search engine. The results you find can actually be great resources early in the research process, but to do great work, you'll need to dig a little deeper. The Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and the National Archives are particularly vast troves of historical documents, but they are not necessarily accessible to all members of the public. If you're a university student, you may have access to these resources—or at the very least, you can make use of your on-campus library's collection or an interlibrary loan program. Many big companies and institutions have their own archivists, and those people are often more than happy to help researchers answer specific questions about their organization. If you dedicate yourself to a thorough search, you'll find great resources for any research project.

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