Learning to Do Historical Research: A Primer
On the Search

Finding the Right Sources in the Right Places

Michelle Niemann
Brien Barrett
Kevin Gibbons


What makes a good research paper? Writing style and an interesting research question are important, but both of these are held up by good sources—the foundation of any good research. To find those great sources, we must be skilled at searching, investigating, and prioritizing. With the hundreds of thousands of books available in the library and the millions of Internet resources at our fingertips, it may seem like an overwhelming task to do a research paper, but with a few simple tools the task can be a breeze. If you have good searching skills and a sense of what is available, finding the right sources can be a fun way to interact with writers and their work.

This page will move past the standard Web searching and show you a variety of useful methods for conducting in-depth library, academic journal, and Internet searches for academic papers. In addition to these tips, we will help you answer the question, “How do I find the right sources for my paper?” by using simple tools to help identify the most relevant sources. We hope that after reading this page, you will have a better idea of what sources are available to you and how to find that information quickly and accurately.

Table of Contents

The Right Places to Search


While the Internet has grown into a very useful resource for conducting research, many people have come to rely on the Internet far too much for their research needs. By limiting your research to only Internet resources, you are excluding an immense and important amount of information that can be found only in books, manuscript collections, periodicals, images, government documents, and subscription databases that are only accessible through libraries.

First and foremost, before you tackle your local library, ask the librarian to assist you in becoming oriented with the library—the different rooms, stacks, collections, and various other resources available in your library. The librarians will be more than delighted to show you around and point you in the right direction with your research. Plus, visiting and getting acquainted with the library early on in the research process will help you save time later.

Most libraries have digitized their card catalogs to provide searchable access to the information housed within their walls on the library’s homepages—however there may be some resources housed in a library that have not yet shown up on the online catalog. Check the physical card catalog or ask a librarian to be certain that you have not missed any documents that may help your cause.

If you are having trouble finding what you need, check the library’s website or ask a librarian to see if they link catalogs or have renting agreements with other libraries in the area. Another library, historical society, or archive in your area may have what your library is missing.

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And as always, if you run into any trouble, ask a librarian. Not only do they know the most about what is housed in your library, but they also love helping others solve research problems.

The Internet

While most of your research should be based on library documents, the Internet can be a great tool to help supplement your hard-copy findings, as it can provide a great breadth of information practically instantaneously. Also it is important to understand how to navigate the Internet for academic reasons as it has had a profound effect on how ideas and knowledge have been created and utilized since the mid-1990s.

Public Web

The public Web is a set of resources that have been made available to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection. The information contained on the public Web often comes in the form of individual websites or webpages and is readily searchable through search engines like Google, Yahoo, or Metacrawler. If you are viewing this website, you have access to the public web!

Gated Web

There are millions of documents available on the Internet that are not accessible through a simple Google search. These documents are protected behind a virtual “gate,” and, because of copyright or privacy concerns, are available only to certain users. Documents like corporate or personal records, copyrighted items, or military or national security papers fall under realm of the gated Web.

While you may never gain access to some of these documents, many of them are available to university libraries and some community libraries through the library’s subscription to databases that contain articles from academic journals, newspapers, and magazines, as well as e-books and reference sources. Subscription to these databases is expensive, and they contain many valuable sources that you cannot find on the public Web. Ask your librarian about the databases to which the library subscribes and how you can access the materials in them.

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Finding the Right Sources for Your Paper

Though the Web has made information more readily available, the seeming ease of access it provides can obscure the detective work that all research requires. To find the right sources for your paper, you should not only locate books and articles on your topic, but also follow the paths that link one writer to another to find the best sources for your paper.

If you want to write a strong research paper, make the effort to find relevant books and articles, read them, and use their notes and bibliographies to find more sources. Aim not to just compile a list of sources related to your topic, but rather to uncover a network of sources that are in conversation with each other about that topic.

Let’s say that you are writing an environmental history paper about wolves in Yellowstone National Park. In the first version of your research question, you ask, “Why did wolves go extinct in Yellowstone National Park, and has their reintroduction been successful?”

You suspect that you may need to narrow this question down further, but to do that you need to learn more about wolves in Yellowstone. Because historians write books to tell stories of the events they study, you could begin by searching for books on the history of wolves in Yellowstone. Scientists more often publish their findings in journal articles, so if you want to learn about the science behind the Park Service’s management of reintroduced wolves, you could begin by searching for journal articles on that topic. Most importantly, be sure to scour the notes and bibliographies of the books and articles you find to track down the best sources for your topic.

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Getting the Most out of Libraries and Books

Libraries store information in a completely different way than the Web does, and therefore require different search techniques - even in this era of online catalogs.

While the Internet is a network—a Web—of sites that exist in virtual space, libraries house physical books, each of which can be shelved in only one place. Because of the structure of the Internet, Google-type searches allow you to enter any given website from multiple angles and through many keywords. Library shelving systems, on the other hand, use hierarchical categories and rigid subject classifications to store physical books in a logical and useful order.

To find a book on the shelf, you need to use the library’s catalog to find its location and call number. Though almost all libraries have transferred their catalogs from drawers of paper cards to online databases, you still have to go into the library’s stacks—the floors of shelves where the library stores its materials—to find the book itself. To make the most of libraries, you must learn to navigate the stacks as well as the online catalog.

Libraries have shelved books by subject for thousands of years. Today, libraries organize books according to either the Dewey Decimal or the Library of Congress system. In 1876, Melvil Dewey created the Dewey Decimal Classification System, in which call numbers begin with numerals rather than letters. Twenty years later, Herbert Putnam improved on Charles Ammi Cutter’s letter-based system to create the Library of Congress (“LC”) Classification System.

Most high school and public libraries use the Dewey Decimal System, while most college and university libraries—as well as the United States’ Library of Congress—use the LC System. It is a good idea to become familiar with the LC System because sources relevant to your topic may be classified under several different call number categories.

Library of Congress Classification System

Call Number



General Works


Philosophy, Psychology, Religion


Auxiliary Sciences of History


World History and History of Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, etc.


History of the Americas (United States)


History of the Americas (United States local history, British America, Canada, Dutch America, French America, Latin America, Spanish America)


Geography, Anthropology, Recreation


Social Sciences


Political Science






Music and Books on Music


Fine Arts


Language and Literature










Military Science


Naval Science


Bibliography, Library Science, Information Resources

Books relevant to the topic of wolves in Yellowstone National Park, for example, are shelved under Q (Science) as well as E (United States history) and F (United States local history). In a large university library system, the books in these call number ranges may be located in completely different libraries across campus from each other.

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Search the Library’s Online Catalog

Until the advent of computers, every library kept its catalog on alphabetized paper cards. It is much easier to find books through today’s digitized catalogs than through the old paper card catalogs, but online library catalogs require different search methods than Google or Amazon.

While Google and Amazon allow for “fuzzy” searches—i.e., if you spell something wrong or include unnecessary words, the search engine can still guess what you want—online library catalogs cannot retrieve the records for relevant books if you spell a word incorrectly or include search terms that are not in the catalog record.

Back in the days of paper cards, each library had three sets of catalog drawers: an author catalog, a title catalog, and a subject catalog. For each book, there would be one card in the author catalog, one in the title catalog, and two or three in the subject catalog. While librarians have moved catalog records from paper cards to online databases, these three categories—author, title, and subject—continue to be the most important and reliable ways to find books through the catalog.

Here are some tips on the most efficient ways to search the library’s catalog:

  • If you know the author or title of the book you are looking for, searching the catalog by author or title (rather than keyword) is usually the quickest way to find it.

  • If you do not know the exact title of the book you are looking for, try searching for the book on Amazon.Amazon will give you the book’s exact title, which you can then use to search for the book in your library’s catalog.

  • To find all the books in the library by a given author, browse by the author’s last name or click on the author’s name in the catalog record for a book.

  • Most library catalogs allow you to search by “keyword” or “words anywhere.” This search finds catalog records that include your search term anywhere in the title, subject, author, or other fields. It is not foolproof, however. Besides the fact that you must spell the term exactly as it is spelled in the catalog, catalog records are very short—so short that they cannot include all of the major terms related to a book’s subject. This kind of search may also give you results that happen to include all the words you used, but are not about your topic.

  • To search for two or more words as a connected phrase, put the phrase in quotation marks. A search for “Yellowstone National Park” will only find records that include that exact phrase. It would not return results with “Yellowstone Park” or another variation.

  • Most library catalogs use ? or * as wildcards or truncation symbols. If you shorten a word using a truncation symbol, the catalog will find all variants of that word. A search for “wol?,” for example, will return records that include wolf, wolves, and wolverines—as well as wold, wolds, and wolfawitz.

  • Use Boolean operators—and, or, but not—to broaden or narrow your search. A search for wolves and Yellowstone will only find catalog records that include both terms, while a search for wolves or Yellowstone will find all the records that include either term. A search for Yellowstone but not tourism will retrieve all the records on Yellowstone except those that include the word tourism.

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Adapted from Bowdoin College Library’s website

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Use Subject Headings

Subject headings have been a part of a library’s way of organizing knowledge since the days when a library’s catalog was kept on paper cards. Both the Library of Congress and the Dewey Decimal Classification Systems still tag each book, periodical, or other source with subject headings. These subject headings appear as clickable links in the online catalog’s record. Take this entry from the University of Wisconsin Libraries’ MadCat catalog:

Author: Sellars, Richard West, 1935-
Title: Preserving Nature in the national parks: a history / Richard West Sellars.
Publisher: New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press, c1997.
Description: xiv, 380 p., [16] p. of plates : ill. ; 25 cm.
Notes: Includes bibliographic references (p. 293-360) and index.
ISBN: 0300069316 (alk. paper)
OCLC: (OcoLC)36800594
Subjects: United States. National Park Service—History.
National parks and reserves—United States—Management—History.
Nature conservation—United States—History.
Natural resources—United States—Management—History.

All of the underlined phrases in this record are clickable links. If you click on one of the subject headings, the online catalog takes you to an alphabetized list of subject headings that looks like this:

# Titles Headings
1 National parks and reserves—United States—Management—History.
3 National parks and reserves—United States—Management—Periodicals.
16 National parks and reserves—United States—Maps.
1 National parks and reserves—United States—Maps—History.

The numbers to the left of each subject heading indicate the number of titles tagged with that heading. If you click on “National parks and reserves—United States—Maps,” the catalog will take you to a list of the sixteen sources that share that subject heading.

  • Follow the subject heading links. Once you find a relevant source, click on one of its subject headings to go to the alphabetical list of subject headings for your library.
  • Scroll through the list of subject headings, looking out for relevant subdivisions. By looking through the pages of headings that begin with “National parks and reserves,” you can find the following among many others:

    National parks and reserves—Law and legislation—Wyoming.
    National parks and reserves—United States—History.
    National parks and reserves—Yellowstone National Park—Management.

  • Scan through the titles under each subdivision related to your topic. Geographic subdivisions are common, but a source that appears in the “Wyoming” subdivision will not also appear in the “United States” subdivision, so look at all the subject headings that might contain something useful.
  • Use subject headings to find titles grouped differently than they are on the shelves. Subject headings bring together sources that may be distant from each other in call number or even housed in separate buildings of a university’s library system.

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Browse the Shelves

Shelving books by subject is the library’s oldest way of organizing knowledge. Here are some tips on how to use the library’s method of shelving to help you find great sources:

  • To find a book, write down its call number and building or room location. For example, here is the necessary information from the University of Wisconsin Libraries’ catalog entry on Richard Sellars’ Preserving Nature in the National Parks:

    Location: Historical Society Library Stacks
    Catalog: UW Madison
    Call Number: SB482 A4 S44 1997
    Status: Not Checked Out.

  • Consult the library’s floor guide or ask a librarian to find that call number range. By looking at the floor guide posted by the stairs to the stacks in the Historical Society Library, you would find that the SB call numbers are on the second floor.

  • Call number ranges are posted at the end of each aisle. Books are shelved in alphabetical and numerical order by each element of the call number in turn. In other words, the SB call numbers come after SA and before SC.

  • Library shelves are designed to create luck. Because books are organized by subject, it is no accident that the best source you find might be the book sitting on the shelf next to the one you went to get.

  • Take advantage of this by browsing the shelves in a systematic way. Scan the shelves for interesting titles. When you see one, pull that book off the shelf and look at its table of contents and introduction to see if it is useful to you. By scanning the shelves near Sellars’ book, for example, you can find George B. Hartzog’s Battling for the National Parks, Horace M. Albright’s The Birth of the National Park Service: The Founding Years, 1913-1933, and Mark David Spence’s Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks.

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Scour Notes and Bibliographies

This is the most effective—and efficient—research technique. If you use the first sources you find to uncover other sources, you will write a much stronger paper than you will if you find all of your sources through keyword searches.

Why? Because tracking down the books and articles that your sources cite will propel you into the middle of a conversation about your topic. As you come to understand how various writers have interpreted your topic—how they respond to, revise, or disagree with each other—you will figure out exactly what you want to contribute.

Here are some tips on using the books you find to uncover the best sources on your topic:

  • Comb through the footnotes and bibliographies of your sources for other books and articles that seem interesting, relevant, or important in the field.

  • The bibliography or footnotes of a well-researched, scholarly book will give you a grasp on past work on the topic more quickly and reliably than catalog searching or shelf-browsing ever will.

  • Pay attention to the publication date of the book you are using; it will only refer to sources published before that date.

  • Skim a book’s structure to figure out, quickly, whether it is relevant. Read the book’s table of contents first, and then its preface or the first few paragraphs of its introduction. Next, look at its conclusion. These steps should give you a basic idea of the book’s subject, approach, and argument. This will help you decide whether to read the book and which sections are most important to your research.

  • What are the primary documents? Use the footnotes and bibliography to figure out which primary documents a scholar relied on.

  • Whose work does the author build on? Whose work does the author refute? Pay attention to the way the author uses and revises the work of other scholars. This will help you understand past thought on your topic.

For example, in his introduction to Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks, Mark David Spence argues that forcing American Indians out of areas they occupied was a key component in the founding of national parks in the American West.

Spence writes, “scholars and park officials have long asserted that native peoples avoided national park areas because these places were not conducive to use or occupation.9 Yet nothing could be further from the truth . . . native peoples made extensive use of these areas – often well into the twentieth century.”

If you look up footnote number 9, you find that Spence cites a scholar who advocates the position he refutes: “See, for example, Alfred Runte, National Parks: The American Experience, 3rd ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 53.” To assess that scholar’s argument, you can look up his book.

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How to Use Encyclopedias

Though you should never rely on or cite overview sources such as textbooks or encyclopedias in a research paper, encyclopedias are a great place to begin narrowing your topic and finding books. The most familiar encyclopedias—Encyclopedia Britannica, World Book, and Wikipedia—are general encyclopedias. Specialized encyclopedias are devoted to particular subjects or disciplines, such as economics, art, or history. Because they address a narrower range of topics, specialized encyclopedias can give more in-depth overviews of them.

General encyclopedias and some specialized encyclopedias are available through your library’s gated Web, but many specialized encyclopedias are available only in print. Encyclopedias are often shelved in a reference room separate from the regular stacks.

  • Search for encyclopedias in your library’s catalog or ask a librarian for help finding the right one for your topic. A keyword search for “National parks encyclopedia” in the University of Wisconsin Libraries’ catalog turns up a reference work that seems especially relevant to research on wolves in Yellowstone: Encyclopedia of American National Parks, edited by Hal K. Rothman and Sara Dant Ewert.

  • Use the bibliographies at the end of encyclopedia articles. If a book or article appears in more than one encyclopedia’s bibliography on your topic, you have found a good title to check out as you begin your research.

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Journal Searches

Articles from academic journals make great sources for papers. Finding journal articles is quite different from using the library or searching the public Web, so we will try to give you a few important links and tools to use to find the right journal articles for your paper. We will also give you a few tools to get the information that you need out of a scientific journal article.

A Little Background

What’s so special about journal articles?!

Academic journals contain the most up-to-date knowledge for the different disciplines. Most top research institutions in the US grant tenure to faculty based on their ability to publish research, and for many disciplines, especially the sciences, this mostly means to publish articles in academic journals, so the importance of these journals cannot be overemphasized.

Think of journals not only as sources of information, but as the venues for scholars to hold discussions about the topics that they are passionate about. This conversational aspect means that journals publish that which is at the forefront of its particular discipline. Most of these journals are “peer-reviewed,” which means that each article submitted by a researcher is reviewed by a few scholars who are considered to be the leaders in the field that the article falls under. If the reviewers decide that there are any problems with the methods, writing, or analysis, or that the article does not contribute anything new or significant, then the journal will not publish the article.

Science vs. Humanities

Articles in science journals offer new empirical data and theories, mostly from field or laboratory work. Disciplines in the natural and social sciences, such as biology, physics, sociology, chemistry, climatology, psychology, anthropology, mathematics, agriculture, medicine, economics, and business, often use journals as their main mediums for publishing new theories and original research. Scientists still occasionally write books, but their articles make up the foundation of their reputation, and the more the article is cited, the more prestigious it and its author become.

While peer-reviewed journals also play an important role in the arts and humanities, historians still publish their new findings and analyses in single-author books rather than academic journals. BUT art and humanities academic search engines are often the best places to search for reviews of books and other works, as well as a huge variety of other things like images, art periodicals, reviews of musical performances, poetry, obituaries, philosophical discussions – so many things!

For the purposes of this page, we will just focus on some general searches, but if you would like to see the wide range of information available, you can visit University of Nebraska’s index of arts and humanities journal articles (http://www.unl.edu/libr/indx/artshum.html) or our page on scientific and other quantitative data.

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Article Search Engines

As a public Web search begins with Google, so a journal article search begins with an academic journal search database. There are many different databases and search engines, and most are “gated”—that is, not accessible through the public Web without a subscription. Most libraries pay to subscribe to a variety of these databases. You can access those that your library subscribes to through your library’s website. Usually, you will have to use an ID number to log in or search on a computer in the library. You should first check your university’s or library’s website to see which ones you have access to.

Which search engine you use will depend on what field you are searching in. Since these often change, it is best to ask a librarian or professor which search engines they would use for your particular topic and field.

However, here are some search engines that are always a good start:

If you do not have access to subscription-based journals, here are some free alternatives:

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Starting from Scratch

Let’s start with our topic of wolves in Yellowstone. You go to your university’s library system homepage, log in, and navigate to the journal search page, which should say something to the effect of “journal,” “database,” or “e-resource” search. When you arrive at this page, the library will ask you to log in with the student ID and password. Once you log in, you now have access to all these resources; consider yourself lucky!

Find the JSTOR link on the library page, click it, and it will take you to the JSTOR homepage. Since you navigated there from your library’s website, you will be able to use the JSTOR database. If you just type in www.jstor.org and try to search, you will not be granted access.

The first search page opens and gives you a chance to type in a box for a keyword search. For these search engines it is best to always use the advanced search.

For the initial search try to find articles about wolves in Yellowstone, but knowing that there are probably a billion articles that mention Yellowstone and wolves, you can refine your search to just look for those words in the title, which should only find articles that are mainly about wolves in Yellowstone:

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Notice that we changed the boxes on the right from “full-text,” which would just be a keyword search throughout all the documents, to “article title.” Also notice that instead of putting down “wolf” or “wolves,” we have written “wolf#.” The reason for this is that in JSTOR, placing “#” after a word will search for all the words with the same stem, so it will search for “wolf” and “wolves.” If we put “goose#,” it would search for “goose,” “geese,” and even “gosling.” These search options have advantages over simple Web searches, and each database search engine uses a different system, so for examples of these ways to use detailed searches, go to the search engine’s help page and find the page for tips on searching – they are usually easy to understand.

You also want to limit the types of journal articles that will come up. To see how we did that, look further down the page:

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Depending on how detailed you would like to get, you could be very specific in the types of articles that you are looking for. Are you just looking for articles about wolf population biology and the current state of their populations? If so, you could just select to look in “Ecology & Evolutionary Biology” journals, and you would not have to wade through many things. At this stage, however, maybe you are interested in the wolves’ interactions with American Indians, where wolves show up in art, or what business is being affected by their populations. So check those ones that you think might be interesting and click “Search.”

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With that simple search and the narrowing down, you get back 19 results. This is great! This gives you a broad range without overwhelming you with information.

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Reading Getting Information from a Journal Article

The following techniques are useful for obtaining information from a journal article in the sciences and social sciences, because they are written quite distinctly from other bodies of literature. They do not apply to journal articles in the humanities, which are not organized as uniformly.

Don’t read that article all the way through. The first of the tricks is NOT to see a scientific article like a novel, which should be read cover-to-cover; you should see the article as a source for bits of information and wisdom that you can extract. Journal articles in the sciences are designed to deliver information as concisely as possible. While this style often makes articles difficult to read, it also makes them easy to mine for information.

Even though section names may vary among journals, articles in the natural and social sciences are most often organized into the following template:

  • Abstract (brief summary of the article and its findings)
  • Introduction
  • Literature Review (discussion of relevant works written about the topic)
  • Methods
  • Results
  • Discussion / Conclusion
  • References / Bibliography

how to quick read a journal article

With this template in mind, read the abstract, ask yourself what information could be contained in this article that could help in your project, and search out that information very deliberately. We are not suggesting that you should not read any articles all the way through. You may be interested in the entire picture that the author paints in the article, or it may relate directly to what you are studying. You should read some articles all the way through, while you should focus on particular sections or information in others. Most importantly, be deliberate in your reading process.

Review Articles

After much debate has taken place in a field, someone will usually write a review article that covers the most important movements and literature in that particular field. If you are starting to investigate a topic, and you are going to consult scientific literature, always look for review articles first. If there are any about your topic, they will tell you so much of what you need to know, AND they will point you towards the most important sources.

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Applying These Principles

If you search for articles about wolves in Yellowstone, you might find a book review of Wolf Wars: The Remarkable Inside Story of the Restoration of Wolves to Yellowstone in the journal Conservation Biology:

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This article tells you, first, that this book exists, and that it is important enough to be reviewed in Conservation Biology, which is a highly respected journal in the field. After a short read or scan, you also learn more about what the book has to offer, which is a history of wolf extirpation (local extinction) in Yellowstone, the changing of popular opinion from hatred to glorification of the wolf, and the long battle to reintroduce populations to Yellowstone. What a great find! Now you can go get this book out of the library.

Another interesting article is towards the bottom of the results:

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If you are interested in social impacts of the wolf’s reintroduction, this is a great article, and since it is relatively recent, you can also expect that it will have a long list of useful sources

Among the over 70 sources, two of them stick out as being particularly interesting:

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The Mech article is found in the book Wolves: behavior, ecology, and conservation, which seems to be a compilation of articles from different authors, since it is edited. That book would be perfect background for your paper.

You also find this article from the US Fish and Wildlife Service:

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This article cites a final environmental impact statement that will likely chronicle the wolf reintroduction and its projected effects. If your paper is about these impacts, this document or a more recent environmental impact statement would be invaluable.

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Finding the Best Articles and Authors

Now that we know how to start a search and get good direction for the background sources of out paper, it will help if we review some principles and tips for finding the best articles and authors for our papers.

You should use journal search engines in much the same way you use online library catalogs, but there are a few key differences:

  • Articles can be sorted in many different ways, based on relevance, year published, etc. Some databases, like Web of Knowledge, will even let you sort by number of times cited, which is immensely helpful because you can more easily find the articles that have gained respect and have stood the test of time. The listing of number of times cited also helps you discover which authors and researchers are most respected in the field, and you can then search out their other articles.

  • Subject headings are used in organizing and categorization, but so are keywords. You can search for the keywords that correspond to articles that interest you. Keywords that apply to the article are found right before or after the abstract. Use these keywords to refine your searches for similar articles.

  • Keyword searches in these search engines are more forgiving than keyword searches in the library catalog because the program will often use keywords to search throughout the document, but you will always be more successful in finding the information that is pertinent to your topic by using the keywords that show up in related articles.

  • If you would like to find a review article, most databases let you choose to limit your search to “review articles,” but these almost always mean book reviews, so you may have to scroll through a few articles to see if there has been an academic review article written about your topic or a related field.

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Public Web Searches for Academic Materials

The most important thing to remember when searching the public Web is that anyone has the ability to post information on the Internet without any approval or oversight. Material on the Internet can appear in the form of fact, story, opinion or interpretation, and may have been created to inform, sell, persuade, or change a belief.

Therefore, it is essential for you to verify the credentials of the author or organization, as material on the public Web varies greatly in its accuracy, reliability and overall value.

Let’s continue with our search example of Yellowstone National Park. Wanting to take advantage of resources on the public Web, you type “Yellowstone” into a Google search, and your simple search retrieves just below 10 million results! However, upon first glance of your results you notice many advertisements for lodges near Yellowstone. Besides links to the National Park Service website and Wikipedia, all of the first ten hits are promoting vacation ideas and accommodations in the park.

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As an historian—and, generally, a student in academia—it is important to know that you must not ever cite Wikipedia as a source; however it is a good website to gain a quick introduction to a topic and possibly find interesting sources. Since probably none of the websites promoting vacations in your Google search will be of use to you, your best bet may be the National Park Service website.

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While the National Park Service website may not be the flashiest website on the Internet, its main objective—like most “.gov” websites—is to provide interested visitors with useful information. Websites that are operated by government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and reputable news sources are often reasonably trustworthy—though of course they too have points of view and biases that you'll want to analyze.

For historical background, you will likely find that the “History & Culture” tab on the sidebar of the Yellowstone National Park website will provide you basic information about the history of the park.

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Tips for Evaluating Websites

  • What is the website’s tag (ex: “.gov,” “.org,” “.net,” “.com,” etc.)? What does the tag tell you about the website’s intent? Is the website there to inform or to sell something?

  • Are there ads present on the website? What are the ads selling? What does that say about the organization that maintains the website?

  • Does the website make the author’s identity clear? Is the intent or bias of the author or website clear? Is the author associated with a college, university, or other organization?

  • Does the author provide citations to any information conveyed? Does the information strike true to other research you have conducted? Has the site been updated recently?

  • If you cannot confirm the website’s reliability, assume that it is NOT reliable!

While the Yellowstone National Park website will be the most reliable for your research, do not automatically discredit the other websites or base all of your research solely on the National Park site. However, since you will not have enough time to evaluate all 9,400,000 results on Yellowstone, be sure to further narrow down your search, weed out websites that will not help you, and use your discretion in evaluating the information on your chosen sites.

Finding Primary Documents

Primary documents are materials produced by actors in a specific time period; they provide the evidence that historians rely upon most. As a result of this, primary documents are the most important documents to look at when you are conducting historical research.

However, one of the most difficult aspects of researching primary documents is that they often are not organized as efficiently as books or journals. Therefore, primary document research requires a lot of time and patience. To learn more about primary documents, visit our pages on this website introducing different kinds of historical sources: Maps, Interviews, Government Documents, Images, Landscapes, Manuscripts, Periodicals, and Quantitative Data.

To help alleviate much of the work that goes into tracking down certain documents, there are primary document finding aids that are available on the public Web that can help point you to the primary document collections that will best serve your research needs.

A great example of a primary document finding aid accessible on the public Web is that of Yellowstone National Park. Starting at the Yellowstone home page (http://www.nps.gov/yell/), clicking on the “History & Culture” tab on the side bar will bring you to a section of the National Park’s website established for historical research. From here clicking on “Collections” and then “Archives” will bring you to Yellowstone National Park’s primary document collection guide.

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Yellowstone’s archive webpage will tell you everything you need to know about accessing the collection.

What the Yellowstone website doesn’t provide, however, are the documents housed in their archives. To see those documents, you will need to arrange a visit to the actual collection.

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Formatting your bibliography

  • If you are just beginning your research, look at Getting the Most out of Libraries and Journal Searches for tips on how to search for sources. This section gives advice on the mechanics of formatting your bibliography, but not on the much more important issue of finding and using books and articles.

  • Write down all the information you will need, in the correct format, as you go. This will make your work easier later on. Record the author, title, city of publication, publisher, edition or volume information, and date for each source you use. It is also a good idea to record call numbers and library location in your draft bibliography in case you need to find a source again later.

  • Find out what citation system you need to use and follow its rules. Historians usually use the Chicago Manual of Style, scholars of literature use the Modern Language Association (MLA) citation system, and social scientists often use the American Psychological Association (APA) style.

  • Use an online citation manager, but don’t let it have the final say. Many libraries subscribe to online citation managers such as Refworks, Endnote, or Write and Cite. If you sign up for an account with one of these citation managers, you will be able to “import” citations from article databases into your account and sort them into folders. This is a great way to keep track of sources you have found, and these citation managers include online tutorials that make them easy to use.

  • Citation managers will also write your bibliography for you, putting your sources in the citation format that you designate. Be cautious in taking advantage of this feature: the citation manager can bungle citations because it is always limited by the source information as it appears in the databases it pulls from. Always check to make sure the necessary information is included and that things like capitalization, punctuation, and spacing correctly follow the citation style you are using.

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Dos and Don’ts


  • Do follow the paths that link one writer to another to find the best sources for your paper.
  • Do set up a good system for note-taking. Make sure that you won’t have to repeat your work later and that you can easily add to your bibliography and your notes on the search as you go.
  • Do use other scholars’ bibliographies.
  • Do browse the nearby library shelves when you go to retrieve a book.
  • Do take time to evaluate websites. Be sure look for who wrote the information and when, and remember to look for any noticeable bias or intent on the part of the author.
  • Do be deliberate when trying to get information out of academic journal articles.
  • Do use the advanced search screen and options when searching in academic journal databases.
  • Do search for academic subject review articles when you are beginning your search.
  • Do keep track of the full reference information of your sources as you find them.
  • Do be wary of public Web sources and evaluate their credibility.
  • Do search for primary documents.


  • Don’t cite Wikipedia nor use a site if you cannot verify its trustworthiness. You are only harming your scholarship if you do.
  • Don’t try to complete each step exhaustively before moving on to the next one. The best researchers circle back to earlier parts of the research process as they go.
  • Don’t assume that you can find all the useful books in the library with just one catalog search.
  • Don’t search the library’s catalog or article databases the same way you search the Web—remember that the library requires more precise search methods.
  • Don’t read all (or even most) academic journal articles you find all the way through.
  • Don’t read or dismiss any source without scanning its bibliography and scouring it for important sources.
  • Don’t overuse public Web sources of information.

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Interesting Links and Works Consulted

The College at Brockport, State University of New York. “Reading Academic Journal Articles.” http://www.brockport.edu/sociology/journal.html. 2008.

Mann, Thomas. The Oxford Guide to Library Research: How to Find Reliable Information Online and Offline. Third Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Spence, Mark David. Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Journal Article Indexes of Arts and Humanities.” http://www.unl.edu/libr/indx/artshum.html. 2006.

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Page revision date: 23-Mar-2009