Each source type, however, entails different methodologies. Sources include university press books, scholarly journals, mass market magazine publications, and historical narratives – often biographies. Each of these sources can bring different perspectives to a particular interest or research focus. In some cases, their stories are read simply for enjoyment, coupled with a desire to know not only the facts of history, but the people that shaped events.
Biographies focus on individual lives. As such, they personalize the historical character in ways no narrative history text can do. In some cases, they offer psychological perspectives of their subject, such as Erik Erikson’s Young Man Luther. Although not strictly historical biography, Erikson’s attempt to utilize psycho-history to discern Luther’s motives may assist in better understanding how and why the Protestant Reformer functioned based on principles of psycho-analysis.
Standard biographies run the gamut from narratives, which often tend to romanticize the subject, to highly detailed and well sourced works often found at University Press publishers. The first type may not be authoritative enough for a serious research assignment while the latter might be too intimidating for history novices.
Magazines and Journals
Although the same arguments can be made for magazines and journals, both options can offer reliable and easy-to-read material. Most professors will accept publications like Smithsonian or American Heritage. Even specialty publications like Archaeology Today and National Geographic can have a valid place in a research paper, essay, or article. Much depends on who authored the piece.
Scholarly journals, usually only accessed on college or university data bases, provide highly detailed information, often on obscure topics, but are always well documented. JSTOR is one of the best data bases, providing journal articles from such venerable publications as Past and Present. Almost all of the articles are written by experts in their field – professors, researchers, and graduate students.
Newspapers as Sources
Newspaper archives such as on the New York Times website or archives from Harper’s Weekly enhance research with primary source accounts and commentary. Some newspaper and e-journal archives are best accessed through college and university data bases. The Economist and the London Times, for example, only allow access to archives upon payment which can range from a monthly fee, a yearly subscription, or a fee per article. This is also true of professional newspapers like The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Other Types of Research Source Books
Micro-histories focus only on one particular event, looking at the subject from a variety of perspectives, often through the eyes and the documents of the historical participants. Economic studies focused on historical topics – clinometric, interpret historical events by economic data, often predicting future historic trends such as Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers or David Landes’ studies on the Industrial Revolution.
Military history, all but banished from some college campuses, interprets historical trends on the basis of military considerations, wars, and the role of turning point battles. Additionally, the perspective of the author must be taken into account. A book written by a Soviet-era Russian historian might present bias in interpretation and leave gaps in the historical record. History books written by Southern Civil War apologists might only give one, possibly distorted, view of the issues. Read more about subjectivity and objectivity.
Interpreting history on the basis of culture is highly popular with students and frequently adds an entirely new and different dimension to the overall study. These works are easy and fun to read. Often, they focus on aspects of history from the cultural experiences of everyday people, something not found in other types of historical studies. Robert Darnton and Natalie Davis are examples of this type of writing.
Discerning Good and Reputable Print Sources
Developing a sense for good, reliable sources may be one of the most difficult aspects for a researcher and writer of history. Does an article about Abraham Lincoln written by Eric Foner or Gabor Boritt trump a Time Life book written for the mass market? Most professors would say yes.
Most book jackets provide brief biographies of the author. Journal and magazine articles usually provide the author’s credentials. Statements such as “John Doe is a frequent contributor…” without any credentials attached might mean that the article should probably not be used. In many cases, these articles are summaries created from both primary and secondary sources. While there are many good print sources available, discerning which ones to use in conjunction with the research assignment is critical.
But don’t forget about copyright writing rules.