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HIST 301: Research Methods - Engen

Getting Started

HIST 301 - Getting Started - Engen

Professor Engen has given you a great deal of latitude on your topic, but does have high expectations of what you will use in researching that topic.

This course guide is to help you to find the best with the least amount of time and effort:


History research is NOT a book report on what has been said are looking for a question that doesn't seem to have been answered. This establishes a place for you to shine by adding to the body of historical studies.

This can be challenging, but as our interpretations of our past continually change in light of modern thinking and new discoveries, there are plenty of topics to explore!

While you are exploring, keep flexible with an open mind and do not 'lock' your thesis to start.


Analyze the source material you need. Books, articles, newspapers, photos, diaries, government publications? there is wide variety of materials, but remember primary sources are of primary importance to you! (yes, that was deliberate.)

Primary sources can be letters, diaries, contemporary newspaper reports, maps or other first-person accounts and evidence. These are generated AT THE TIME of the event or era.

--Note: Ancient and world history have limitations in what is available to you due to scarcity, access limitations, and language. That does not let you off the hook for doing a thorough job but wil make it more difficult, so think carefully about your topic.

--Modern-day translations of ancient or older works are considered primary source as long as they are meet scholarly standards (e.g., a graphic novel about the Peloponnesian War is NOT a primary source.)

Secondary sources are articles and books that examine a number of works to create an argument and text. Secondary sources are written years AFTER the event or time period and through differing social lenses. Check the sources used to make sure the source material was primary sources and not a re-hash of secondary work.

--Note: The older the topic, the more material you will find on it. Is that a good thing? Generally no. You wade through more 'stuff' and will find a lot more discredited interpretations on longstanding topics.

Ask yourself: What is available to me to inform and support my research? If you cannot find enough primary evidence due to issues such as access, language, or scarcity, it is time to re-think your topic.

Identify where to locate what you need. Is it in a book, article collection, newspaper database, or an image collection? In looking at secondary sources, might there be appendices to direct you to additional sources that you need? Which databases will provide the relevant sources?

Collect tools that will help you organize your resources, such as Zotero. An additional tool to help you with word use is the Oxford English Dictionary, found in the CSUSM Databases collection.


Do not wait to start!

Collect your research in print or electronic format. After finding a few pieces, start sorting into folders or topic collections. This will help you see themes and potential questions to drive your thesis.

Keep in mind "Judith's rule of research"--If you haven't found something useful in your first 15 minutes, take time to ask for help!

Books & Catalog

HIST 301 - Books - Engen

Use the BOOKS & MORE tab on the library home page.

To get the most out of our library catalog, there are searches and limiters beyond using keywords.

  • SUBJECT HEADINGS in the library catalog (and some databases). This system unifies content with consistent tags and locates materials together on the same subject.
  • RESOURCE TYPE reduces the results to just the format you need (removes videos if you select 'books'.)
  • CREATION DATE limiter helps you find the most recent scholarhip on your topic.
  • LANGUAGE will remove any materials in languages you cannot read.

Follow these steps...

  1. Choose BOOKS & MORE as your search option.
  2. Type words into the search box that appropriately describe your topic (not too many words, but the best you have uncovered in your original topic consideration.)
  3. If you get more than 20 hits, use some limiters to reduce the number of items to browse.
  4. Examine the results list.
  5. Open a title that sounds relevant and either check it out or read online.
  6. For more, look for the subject headings.
  7. Click on any one of these and the search results will be all works with this tag. (You can also browse the list of related subject headings that will come up for more!)
  8. Need even more? Try other terms that also describe your topic.

Note: Subject heading searches can be repeated in San Diego Circuit, CSU+, WorldCat and LCSH-friendly databases like Project Muse.

SSECONDARY SOURCE EXAMPLE (looking for 'hippies')



Articles & Databases

History Articles & Databases

Articles are normally used as secondary source resources by historians, although they may include snippets of primary source texts or images. But whether the material you are examining falls into primary (first-hand, time-of-event reporting) or secondary (analysis after-the-fact) catgories depends on your research topic.

The CSUSM research databases are sources for articles as the library catalog does not index articles in serial publications. The databases may be indexes (citations and include abstracts) or full text collections.

You can jump into the deep end by using either the Discovery or Articles+ search on the library home page, but you will find a great deal of unrelated material to work thorugh regardless of how carefully you craft your search terms.

A more focused search is to use a specific and appropriate database. From the LIbrary home page, click on Databases by SUBJECT and you will see a link for History as well as a sublink for Primary Sources. Searching these sources will reduce your result set as well as give you tools in some databases that are of particular use to history research, such as Era or time period (as opposed to 'date published') limiters.

We are here to help--either the librarian or your instructor--to determine the category your resource falls into, or where to start.

Primary Sources

Primary Sources for History

Finding primary sources will be the most challenging portion of your search process. Not only determining where to look (not everything is on the web!), you will be dealing with inconsistent language, format issues, and identifying whether what you found is actually primary or not.

Searches including the term 'primary' will usually return an unsatisfactory result set. This is because it is actually difficult to label an item as primary--what it is varies with the need of the researcher and the situation in which the item was created. This example uses articles published about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

"San Francisco Doomed" from The Oakland Tribune, April 18, 1906 is from the time of the event and would be primary source material for historical research on this event and its aftermath.

"Frisco Quake Remembered" from The Birmingham Post and dated April 19, 2006 is secondary if you are researching the 1906 quake. BUT it could be considered primary if you are researching the perception of this event after a period of time (how has memory affected history?), rather than the event itself.

A well-done site that discusses finding primary sources on the web, providing examples and a selection of sites is "Using Primary Sources on the Web". This is brought to you by the members of the the American Library Association's Reference & Users Service Association/History Section.


A search on your topic or person in the CSUSM library catalog (or other library catalogs) can reveal a number of primary sources in our collection. Keyword searches that include the following terms will identify primary materials most of the time:

  • Memoir
  • Diar* (for diary or diaries)
  • Correspondence (this is a LoC subject heading subdivision)
  • Letters
  • Personal narrative (this is a LoC subject heading subdivision)
  • Recollections
  • Reminscences
  • Journal

Some things to watch out for when searching a library catalog:

  • Searching on a personal name. If the catalog uses Library of Congress subject headings, there will be a consistent version used in the subject headings, but additional notes may be added to provide access through common alternatives, spellings, or nicknames. (e.g., Mark Twain and Samuel Clemens)
  • Subject headings will use one approved phrase for a topic, but if the subject heading has been updated (very rare), you may need to use older phrasing in your subject search. This is most likely to happen if you are using a print index (the drawers of cards) rather than an electronic index.

There are other tricks to try, contact your librarian for more help.


History Databases with Primary Sources

Accessible Archives
A good source for 19th Century American History; includes newspapers on the Civil War and African Americans.

African American Newspapers, 1827-1998
Newspapers digitized from 37 states chronicling African American experiences and influence in a variety of events from the early 19th through late 20th centuries.

American State Papers, 1789-1838
Collection of U.S. Congressional business after the Continental Congresses and before the U.S. Congressional Serial Set began.

Archive of Americana
Collections of digital documents representing American history and the growth of the nation (American State Papers, U.S. Congressional Serial Set and its maps, and a collection of Hispanic American Newspapers. Search all collections at one time.

Documenting the American South
A collection of primary source documents reflecting Southern U.S. history, literature and culture.

Hispanic American Newspapers, 1808-1980
Spanish and English language newspapers offering news, advertisements, opinion and more from across the nation reflecting contemporary thought and activity.

Los Angeles Times (Historical)
Archived articles beginning with 1881. Issues published during the past twenty-four years are not available in this database. Check ProQuest or Factiva databases for more current material not held in this collection.

Making of America Project (Cornell University)
A digital library of primary sources in American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction (19th century imprints). Focuses more on journal articles.

Making of America Project (University of Michigan)
A digital library of primary sources in American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction (19th century imprints). Focuses more on books.

U.S. Congressional Serial Set, 1817-1980
A record of Congressional activities reflecting public opinion, interactions with the President, treaties and much more. A companion site to this is, listing legislative activity (bills and laws) for 1973-current.

Primary Sources (on the internet)

An increasing number of sites are offering digitized images and text that are of use to the historian. Here is a sampling:

Chicago Citation Style

Chicago Citation Style

Chicago-Style Citation Quick Guide

Library Copies (Z253 .U69) (kept at Permanent Reserves) We now have the Manual online as well through the library catalog.

What's New in the 17th Edition

The Chicago Manual of Style is the stylistic and citator preference for most history researchers, but always check with your professor before proceeding on both citation style and which system. The Notes-Bibliography system is generally preferred in history publications, but there is also an Author-Date system. These systems use different formatting, so be sure which your professor prefers.

IMPORTANT! Recently, the University of Chicago Press issued a new edition for this style. Check your resources such as automated citation generators to make sure you are being given the latest information based on the 17th edition as not all sites have updated yet.

Chicago may be referred to as Turabian, after Kate Turabian, who wrote a manual for students for research, writing and citing sources based on the Chicago citation style. The current version is titled A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations: Chicago Style for Students and Researchers. The CSUSM library keeps a copy at the Research Help Desk at LB2369 .T8 2007 and a copy on permanent Reserves (Checkout Desk.)

Some additional helpful web sites:

Chicago Manual of Style 17th Edition (OWL at Purdue)

Chicago-Style Citation Quick Guide for Government Documents From Bowdoin College, this guide uses the 15th edition as the 17th is not as comprehensive on government citations.

Legal Citations Using Chicago

For a summary of the Chicago style of citation for legal citations, please refer to the Chicago Manual of Style 17th ed. Chapter 14, sections 269-280 for legal materials and sections 281-292 for US Government pubiications.

There are a number of in depth publications on legal citations.

  • Cornell University's "Introduction to Basic Legal Citation" is freely available on the internet.
  • "The Blue Book" addresses this type of citation in great depth and is considered the authority. We have the 2010 edition.
  • "The Maroon Book" by  the students at the University of Chicago Law School challenges the Blue Book rules and is not considered authoritative.

Keep in mind there are specific rules for providing the legislative or case number and you will need to use the published or 'formal' title, although there may be more popular common references.

The Library of Congress has provided a simple site with examples for referencing US Congressional documents "Citation Guide".

Need Help?

Judith A. Downie

Special Collections and History Librarian
Judith A. Downie
760-750-4374 OR 760-750-4312 (Archives)
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