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FORMS: Developing a TopicFollowing the Secondary Source Trail Analyzing a Secondary Source
Primary Sources: The "Stuff of History" How to Look at Old Maps How to Read Photographs

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Welcome to the Wide World of Research!

History Fair challenges students to "become historians" by actually doing history: research, analysis, forming a thesis, writing, producing, and communicating. The foundation is solid research into primary and secondary sources. Research depends on persistence, patience, a willingness to ask questions and explore possibilities. This guide introduces students to how to approach the research component of doing history.

Secondary Sources Are Not "Second"!

"Joining the conversation" is an important part of doing history.
Secondary sources are books, documentaries, and magazine, newspaper, or professional journal articles written by historians and other writers who analyzed primary sources, studied others' arguments, and then formed their own understanding and conclusions of a historical question. Secondary sources are crucial to a History Fair project and should be given the most attention in the first phase of research and reading. All historians spend time with secondary sources; they see their own work as "joining the conversation"-building on other's ideas and offering new ways to understand a topic. History Fair encourages students to develop their own original ideas-but students can only do so if they know what's been written already.

Focus on secondary sources to:

  • Gain specific information about a topic.
  • Learn the context of previous actions/ideas that "set the stage" and what social, economic, political situations existed at the time.
  • Frame a particular story in the bigger picture.
  • Consider interpretations by different historians on a similar topic.
  • Use the bibliography to locate other important secondary sources.
  • Find out where primary sources on the topic are located (especially helpful for finding articles in pre-indexed newspapers).
  • Provide reproductions of primary sources that are relevant to a students project.
  • Model the structure of a historical argument based on claims and evidence.

Not all secondary sources are of equal value.
The most important secondary sources tend to be those that offer an interpretation based on primary sources. Some works are syntheses or compilations of secondary sources themselves, therefore they are another step removed from the actual sources. While these surveys are helpful, particularly in the first stages of research when a student is gathering basic information, students are encouraged to concentrate on secondary sources that are based on original work with primary sources. They tend to be written by scholars and published by university presses and journals.

Following the Secondary Source Trail


Step One

What? When? Who?

Step Two

Figuring Out the Story: Information Gathering

Step Three

A "Conversation" with


In the beginning stages of your research, you are trying to find out what happened and when, who the key people are, what important events happened, etc. At this stage in your research, you might still be determining the exact focus of your research and narrowing your topic.

In the middle stages of your research, you will begin to understand your topic in more depth. By now, you go beyond what happened and when and begin to ask questions like why? how? what was the impact? what was the context? You have a working thesis.

When you reach the advanced stages of historical research, you seek to understand the important issues, themes, questions, and debates that historians have about this subject and its significance in history so that you can offer your own interpretation.


•  Encyclopedias (general and specialized, esp. historical)
•  Textbooks

•  General books on your topic
•  Historical books accessible to general public
•  Popular history magazines and basic periodicals
•  Biographies
•  Text in museum exhibit
•  Documentaries

•  Scholarly books and dissertations
•  Scholarly articles
•  Interviews with scholars and other experts


•  What happened?
•  When?
•  Who are the key people involved?
•  What's happening around the same time that might help you understand why things happened as they did?
•  What are the keywords that will lead you to other sources?

•  Why did these events happen?
•  What are the causes and effects?
•  What were the various motivations, perspectives, and concerns of the people involved?
•  How does this story fit into the big picture?

•  What key questions do historians have about this topic in history?
•  What do you think matters about this topic? What story are you going to tell?
•  What are the core issues and themes one must understand to make sense of this subject?
•  Why does this topic matter?
•  What is the long-term historical significance of this topic?

Download Following the Secondary Source Trail as an Adobe PDF for easy printing.

First steps to locating key secondary sources:

  1. Check reference works, such as the Encyclopedia of Chicago or Women Building Chicago. Often, key sources are offered by the authors at the end of the entry.

    For example, a student doing a project on changing attitudes to the German community might read the Encyclopedia of Chicago entry on World War I; at the end, the entry suggests the researcher read "The Great War Sinks German Kultur" in Ethnic Chicago.
  2. Use the bibliographies and citations provided in a scholar's book. They will list the collections of archival materials used, important secondary sources, and specific dates for newspaper articles that have not been indexed.

    Continuing the example, above, in reading the "The Great War Sinks German Kultur" article, a student should turn to the primary and secondary sources cited in the bibliography and find those that seem most important for their topic.
  3. Look for specialized bibliographies or indices on particular subjects such as The Haymarket Affair: An Annotated Bibliography by Robert Glenn or Bibliography of African American Family History by David Thackery. The Index to Chicago History magazine (annual and cumulative) is an essential tool for History Fair students and other subject-specific indices, such as the Burnham Index to Architectural Literature or the Chicago Afro-American Union Analytic Catalog are invaluable. Ask the reference librarian to help you!
  4. Be patient in doing library catalog searches: prioritize books published by university presses. Use the links under the subjects of books found particularly helpful to find potentially more of the same. When doing keyword searches, remember to try various versions of the words (such as movies-motion pictures; black-Afro-American). Ask a library to show you how to use the Library of Congress Subject Headings too.

Go to the research resources historians use to find important journal articles and reviews.

  1. America, History and Life
  2. Databases: J-Store and History Cooperative (available at university libraries) and microfiches/microfilm to find articles and reviews from such scholarly publications as Journal of American History, Journal of Ethnic History, Labor History, or Business History Review.
  3. Social Sciences Index
  4. American Historical Association's Guide to Historical Literature edited by Mary Beth Norton contains over 27,000 annotated entries.
  5. Reviews in American History
  6. Dissertations and Masters Theses on topics in Chicago history may be found at local universities. America, History and Life and indices to dissertations can be used to locate them and given enough time, students may borrow copies through interlibrary loan. Both CPL and CHS have purchased a number of dissertations that are especially important to Chicago historians.
  7. Readers Guide to Periodical Literature can help locate non-scholarly articles on a historical topic. (Since it published throughout the 20th century, it is also a rich source for primary sources too.)
  8. Scholars and experts may be available for interviews, but students should seek them out with specific questions related to their work or the argument the student is developing rather than general questions that could be answered through other sources.

How to "read" a secondary source

Few historians have time to read every word of a book. Because they need to find out pretty quickly if the source is relevant to their own work, they preview a source to determine if it will be helpful. They also pick out the argument and the central claims and evidence offered in the work, and summarize the work in their own words. Like primary sources, secondary sources should be analyzed for perspective, purpose, audience, context, and authority.

Analyzing a Secondary Source

Let the Voices of Primary Sources be Heard!

Primary sources are "voices from the past"-material from the time that is being studied, not filtered or interpreted by others. Such sources include letters (personal or formal), photographs and drawings, diaries and journals, trial transcripts, newspapers, flyers and posters, reports, government documents and oral histories. Primary sources make history come alive, but more importantly, they distinguish a History Fair project from a mere "report." Students must find primary sources, critically "listen" to those voices, and form their own conclusions based on the evidence. The wider and deeper a student goes into primary sources the more she/he will grasp their subject and gain credibility as a historian.

Here is a handy visual reminder of the variety of primary sources:
Primary Sources: The "Stuff of History"

When should students start looking for and using primary sources? Right away, though at first students will want to concentrate on serious study of secondary sources so when they work deeply in the primary sources they know what to ask of these sources and have the context and background knowledge in which to make sense of the material. Eventually, primary sources should consume most of a student historian's time: it is the analysis and synthesis of all the primary sources to form and back up an argument that is the heart of the History Fair project. For students doing projects that depend heavily on visual evidence (documentaries and exhibits), they will want to especially focus on sources that will build a visually dynamic presentation.

Just because something is "firsthand" from the past, doesn't mean it is the truth-at the very least, it has a certain perspective, a particular purpose, and context that must be considered. For example, an eyewitness account of the Haymarket tragedy might differ if the source was a worker or a factory owner. Similarly, a newspaper article published by the Chicago Tribune in 1886 might differ significantly from an article printed in a newspaper sympathetic to labor. It is up to historians to explore different perspectives, analyze them, and then come to their own conclusion. Primary sources are only as good as the student historian who analyzes them.

These worksheets will help students learn how to analyze a primary source and "unpack" the information contained in them:

From: Gerald Danzer, A History Handbook for Student Research Projects (Springfield, Ill.: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, 1991).

How to Analyze a Document (267KB)
How to Look at Old Maps (158KB)
How to Read Photographs (222KB)

The Digital Classroom at the National Archives offers worksheets on written documents, photographs, cartoons, posters, maps, artifacts, sound recordings, and motion pictures:

Where can students find primary sources?

  • Historical societies and museums
  • Libraries-remember periodicals
    School media center
    Local library
    Regional and central libraries
  • Organizations and businesses
  • At home
  • Internet
  • Special collections and archives

What is an archives or special collections?
Special collections and archives may be housed in libraries, historical societies, museums or corporations/organizations hold. They contain rare books or archival materials that are one of a kind, usually archives or manuscripts and papers.

Here is how librarians and archivists organize this unique material:

  • Manuscripts & Papers-from individuals; can contain anything a person or family collected: from unpublished writings (such as drafts), letters, and scrapbooks to theater programs.
        Example: the papers of Ben Burns
  • Archival Records-original documents from organizations
        Example: records of the Black Arts Theatre Ensemble

Because copies do not exist, these items do not circulate and special rules for handling apply. Students should plan to take notes-while some items can be photocopied or scanned, others will not. The archivist or special collections librarian makes the decision. Any one who wants to use materials from an archives will be required to fill out forms, use pencils only, often wear cotton gloves to hold materials, and follow other rules that don't apply in circulating libraries. An archivist has many roles: one of which is providing access to the material, but just as important is preserving the material so it is available to researchers far into the future. Therefore, he or she is as concerned about the treatment of the papers and records so that it stays in the same condition in which you received it AND the security of it. The rules and procedures they ask students to follow are the same they ask of adults.

Don't let the rules scare you off, however. Using material from an archival collection is rewarding itself, but it can also change the entire experience of doing History Fair-and may significantly impact the depth of a project's knowledge and analysis. Nothing beats the real thing!

Can students "google" their way through archival and special collections? Most of the material from archival collections will not be on the Internet but there are some ways in which students can begin to explore what is available. On-line exhibitions, lists of collections, and finding aids are appearing increasingly; students will find some sites listed on our Internet Guide; the Resource Guide will direct students to actual collections that may be visited.

Some special collections libraries or archives offer an on-line digital exhibition that display a particular collection or is a sampler of the material in the archives. Other archival holdings have been digitized such as the Haymarket and Chicago fire sites on the Chicago Historical Society and the Hull House collection from UIC. Such material may not be accessible otherwise due to access policies for student researchers or may be too far away from Chicago.

Here is a sample of a digital exhibition of primary sources:

Usually, students will need to go to the actual archives--many institutions do not yet keep a full listing of their collections on their website. If the archives provides its mission, or even better, a descriptive list of what is in the collection then a researcher can judge whether or not it is worth contacting for more information.

Here is a sample of a list of collections:

Some collections are putting their FINDING AIDS on their website or have a descriptive list of their collections so students can figure out if it is worth going to visit or calling. Finding aids are organized lists of what is contained into a particular set of manuscripts or records. They provide a wealth of information: historical background, names of people or organizations to be found, how it is organized, how much material exists, and what is in each folder so a researcher can get a sense if the collection would be helpful. CMHEC's Internet Resources offers several local institutions that have finding aids on-line.

Here is a sample of a Finding Aid:

See how rich the sources are in a collection? In most cases, a researcher will need to go to the special collections library or archives to actually see and use the material.

Take the plunge!
Take some time exploring collections that list their holdings and give you complete finding aids, and if it seems relevant to your historical question or thesis, try using a collection in your History Fair paper. Visit an archives and talk to the archivist or librarian about your project. They may know of gems in collections that may not be obvious. Be sure to conduct some solid, basic research before going there and once there, and demonstrate maturity and a willingness to follow the rules.

Here is a high school student's essay on his experience using an archives to do a project on child labor:

Check out the CMHEC Resource Guide for local institutions and organizations that have special collections or archives and the CMHEC Internet Guide that link to collection's descriptions or finding aids on-line.

For another version about doing research, check out the National History Day's "A Research Roadmap"