Getting Started

Getting Started

HIST 301 Getting Started - Quinney

The U.S. government is notably thorough in recording its negotiations, treaties, conflicts, and other activities with other nations but not so great on making the information easy to find. Being that many different agencies can be involved in these transactions, the challenge is in knowing where to find what you need.

Prepare your research strategy by noting all the terms, topics, and people involved.

  • Nations can change name (Siam->Thailand) and boundaries (the break up of the USSR)
  • Translation of a name can take many forms (NPR claims there are at least 37 spellings for Muammar Gadhafi/Khadaffi/Ghadaffi)
  • The state of a relationship and negotiations will change under different leadership
  • Who has influence and interest in the relationship (both inside and outside the government)

What terminology should you use? 'Foreign relations' is a start but there are other terms that are worth a search...

  • International relations
  • Agreement
  • Treaty or treaties
  • Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)
  • Cooperation
  • Imperialism
  • Expansionist
  • Foreign policy

Where and what sort of documentation should you look for?

  • Treaties, agreements, MOUs
  • Congressional debates and votes
  • Presidential messages
  • Newspaper and magazine interviews and reports
  • National polls

Keep in mind that not all historical documents have been digitized and some are not released due to national security issues. Materials not available locally or digitally can generally be borrowed through Interlibrary Loan.

Of course, reach out to me any time for help!



HIST 301 - Books - Quinney

Books can be either primary or secondary sources or both. This confusing status is dependent on the book's content and how you are writing about the topic.

Let's use "The Guano Islands Act of 1856" as an example of a foreign relations matter. This act (one of several), once passed into law and published as a section of the US Code (US Code 48 USC Ch. 8 sections 1441-1419) has allowed the United States to take possession of land seen as otherwise 'unclaimed' for the purpose of harvesting bird poop.

Of course, just because the US makes a claim on a piece of land does not mean that other nations agree. Negotiations (preferably peaceful) over disputed geography is evidence of foreign relations and perceptions of power.

Books & More in the Library Catalog has several search options:

  • Keyword (guano island returns 40)
  • Focused keyword ("guano island" returns 9)
  • Subject (need specifically-structured language)
  • Broad subject (no guarantee there will be much, but worth a try)
  • Author (won't have that information until you do some topic searching)

Keyword search on "guano island"

From the results on my search, here are two possibilities. Are these primary or secondary sources?

                                   Published in 1846 ---------------------------------------------- Published in 1994



What else can you find from the book record?

  • Subject headings
    • United States -- Territories and possessions -- History
    • Unites States -- Insular possessions -- History
    • Individual nation's foreign relations with the US (xxxx -- Foreign relations -- United States)
  • Additional useful terms/concepts (Why would guano be important enough for the US to claim potentially disputed territory?) In the 19th century and even today, guano is a economic and trade item of importance.
    • New keyword/concept searches
      • guano trade
      • economics
      • empire
      • Disputed territories

Access the book

Libraries are buying more books in e-format than ever before to provide more convenient access (and in some cases, access by several readers at once.) Some materials will be free-access but for most, you will need your current campus ID to check out books in person or be a current CSUSM member to access.

If not available through our catalog, you can order through CSU+ and have it in a few days.



HIST 301 - Articles - Quinney

Peer-reviewed articles are an excellent secondary source for research papers. There are many ways to find these materials and this page provides guidance on finding the best with the least amount of work.

Peer-reviewed articles are considered the 'best of the best'. There are strategies for your search to find these materials and specific indicators to ensure you have found peer-reviewed material.

Strategies for the peer-review search

  • Avoid using Google--the library provides access to a large number of subject-specific collections in the databases (try America: History and Life, Historical Abstracts, or JStor)
  • Use appropriate and precise terms ("foreign relations" and "foreign policy" do not return the same material)
  • Add additional terms to narrow the results ("foreign relations" and a specific nation will be a smaller amount of results)
  • Use result limiters available in almost every database (options will vary with the database)

Evaluating what you find

  • Looking at the article:
    • Bibliography or list of references
    • Author qualifications or affiliations (are they with a university, scholarly organization, or government agency?)
    • Review statement at article beginning or end (something like "Submitted August 3, 2000; Revised September 15, 2000, Accepted October 1, 2000")
    • Writing and jargon used in the discipline
  • Other things you can do to evaluate the quality of the article:
    • Is there a list of editorial review board members (in the journal or website)?
    • Search Google Scholar to see how many times the article has been cited by others.
    • Search Google Scholar to see what else this scholar has written on the topic.

Search Examples:

America: History and Life (This is a US history-specific collection)

  • Searching "foreign relations" alone returns 37,901 hits!
  • Adding the term 'guano' narrows the results to 6
  • If I had more results, I could use the 'Peer-review' and 'Exclude book reviews' limiters


JStor (This database favors more scholarly content than many other databases)

  • Searching "foreign relations" returns 69,690 hits!
  • Adding the term 'guano' reduces to 278
  • If I had selected 'articles' at the beginning of my search I would have 178
  • Could add a particular nation, etc. to narrow results even more

Other secondary sources:

Congressional Research Services (CRS) Reports
While not a peer-reviewed article, these in-depth reports are funded by the US Congress to study and report on policy matters facing Congress by providing background, statistics, and related research.

Other CSUSM databases such as Historical Abstracts (history viewed from international viewpoints) and Military & Government Collection may also provide useful material dependent on how you are approaching your topic.

Avalon Project (from Yale Law) provides translations of a broad variety of texts and treaties from countries around the world from ancient to current times.

Remember, if you are having any kind of problem with finding what you need, ask for help!

Primary Sources

Primary Sources

HIST 301 Primary - Foreign Relations

For purposes of this course, primary sources will rely a great deal on U.S. Government-generated materials.

CSUSM is a Federal Government Documents Depository which provides a selection of government-published materials at no cost. The library catalog includes records for these materials in all formats for easier discovery.

In addition, we pay for commercial databases that have digitized government information if free versions are not available. Access is contracted for CSUSM users so those will require you to have a current CSUSM username and password. The resources listed here are grouped by free (open) access and password-protected databases.

Free online:

Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS)
(Formerly published as Papers Relating to Foreign Affairs.) This is a collection of diplomatic messages accompanied by messages from the President to Congress. Covers 1861 (Lincoln) through most of 1980 (Carter.) Later administrations through 2000 (Clinton) are listed, but not yet published. CSUSM does have many of the print volumes through 2014 (Obama) in the Government Documents collection. is the official site for the US Congress including the Congressional Record 1995-present. This collection includes presidential messages, bills and enacted legislation concerning foreign relations. Use the Search Tools option in the upper right corner to pick the resources to search this continually-growing collection. 

Statutes at Large is provided by the Library of Congress' Law Library for access to all laws as passed by Congress in chronological order (1789-2011.) This collection may also be searched by keyword and contains full text treaties until 1950.

Treaties in Force lists all US current treaties, some signed in the late 1700s.

US Code (hosted by the House of Representatives) is the entire set of current US law. Links provided within the text to the original documents in Statutes at Large.

Census and statistical compendia of economics, trade and agriculture can also be valuable evidence in foreign relations.

National Security Archive (hosted at George Washington University) has actively collected declassified documents on a wide variety of topics for over 30 years.

Declassified Government Documents (University of Texas, Austin) has not been updated since 2015, but most of the links continue to work. Note some links will take you to restricted databases.

Homeland Security Digital Library (Department of Homeland Security) provides access to CSUSM as a Federal Depository Library. This includes CRS Reports and selected Congressional testimony.

United Nations Treaty Collection 1946-2013 (use the Full text search tab to retrieve treaty documents.) This page also contains the earlier League of Nations' treaty collection.


CSUSM Users (in the Library Databases):

United States Congressional Serial Set (1870-1980)
Contains both Presidential and Congressional documents, speeches and discussions, including materials from 1817-1861 not in FRUS. Note there is a separate database of the maps included in the Serial Set that is searched in the main Serial Set search.

American State Papers (1789-1838)
Some content overlap with the Serial Set. Use Readex All Search to search both databases in the same search.

Archive of Americana
Access to early American newspapers recording popular opinion and reports on government actions at the time.

Sabin Americana (1500-1926)
A rich collection of texts from both American and international sources. While primarily economic/trade-focused, there is a great deal that reflects on foreign policy concerns and development.

Sample mixed primary and secondary source:

Smithsonian Institute digital exhibit on the Guano Islands Act of 1856.

The labels in red text note primary and secondary source material IN THE CONTEXT of my research paper. In this example, my research is on mid-19th century activities of the United States in securing resources outside the recognized national boundaries. This act demonstrates the attitude of the U.S. government towards foreign governments and their claims on resources. A loose interpretation of this document is 'We will take possession as we don't think anyone else's claim is strong and we will use military force if necessary to advantage American farmers.'