Reference Sources & Materials Used in Historical Research

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about reference sources and other materials used in historical research. We will understand the role these tools have in historical methodology, and how they help historians.

History as Science: An Introduction to Historical Methodology

Here's a little secret: history is actually a science. Yes, you heard that right. In fact, that is why it sometimes called 'social science.' History is the science of the past. And like science there are certain 'laws' or 'rules' which the discipline is bound to. Just as we can't undo the Law of Planetary Motion or the Law of Gravity, so too we can't undo certain historical 'rules.' For example, a historian can't just make up what happened in the past, right? No, history is based on evidence.

Primary sources are key forms of evidence which guides historians. Primary sources are those sources created during the time being studied. They contain firsthand knowledge or information. An original letter written from John Adams to a friend would be a primary source. Other primary sources would include an original photograph of 1920s 'flappers,' film footage of World War II, a historical artifact such as a helmet, and other types of original documents. Secondary sources are those sources created after the fact. They are based on primary sources. Secondary sources include books and articles written by experts. For example, a book about Napoleon by a current university professor would be a secondary source.

This letter written to Abraham Lincoln is an example of a primary source.
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This brings us to what we call historical methodology. Historical methodology is the process by which a historian constructs an account of the past. So for example, historical methodology involves historians examining sources, proposing hypotheses, testing those hypotheses, and finally arriving at conclusions. In this discipline of history, a hypothesis is called an interpretation or an approach. An interpretation is a specific view about the past. We could spend a long time discussing the ins and outs of historical methodology, but let's move on for now and learn about some of the types of materials that are involved in this process.

Reference Sources

Reference sources include dictionaries, encyclopedias, almanacs, charts, and other forms of information that can be 'referred' to for research purposes. A reference source is a secondary source. Reference sources are helpful to historians in many ways. They allow researchers to look up detailed information, such as dates, names, and statistics. They are especially helpful to historians who want make sure their interpretation is factually correct. In this way, reference sources can be used for 'confirmation' purposes. As helpful as reference sources are, we should remember they are pretty much useless when it comes to constructing an original history. Original histories are drawn from primary source material.

This is a 1913 ad for the Encyclopedia Britannica, one of the most well-known general knowledge encyclopedias.
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