COM436/636: Issues, History of the Mass Media
Instructor: Ross Collins

How to Read for Historical Research

Many students new to historical research feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of reading they are expected to do to complete a research paper. Dozens of books, journal articles, and primary sources such as newspapers seem intimidating, especially given the time constraints of a single semester.

The answer, however, can be found not in ignoring important material, but in working through it quickly. Here is a brief guide.

Books and articles
You need this information for your background and introduction, and to help explain and interpret your story, but you can often get by without reading the whole book, or even the whole article. Try this:

1. From a book title and copyright page, record complete bibliographical information: author, title, edition, publisher, city of publication, date of publication. Print names so you don't misspell them later. For articles, also include publication title, volume number, and pages the article appears on.

2. Approach a book first by analyzing its table of contents. Which chapters are not closely related to your topic? Skip them. Approach an article by first reviewing subheadings.

3. Read the introduction, preface, and forward. This usually helps orient you to the book's or article's contents, and should summarize the contents succinctly.

4. Read the conclusion. Also a good summary.

5. Sift for nuggets: If you aren't sure which chapters or sections cover your topic, scan each quickly. Read the first couple paragraphs. Then read the first line of a paragraph or two on each page, and scan the rest. Look for a few simple key words from your topic. For instance, if you are interested in North Dakota frontier press history, scan text for words like "Dakota" and "press." If the topic of the chapter seems quite unlikely to contain this, either skip the rest or glance quickly down the page, no more than a few seconds a page. If you find three or four important nuggets, read more carefully.

6. When you find information directly pertaining to your topic, take as complete notes as you can, quoting directly, if possible. You may wish to occasionally photocopy a page, but I don't recommend wholesale photocopying for several reasons: a) it's expensive; b) it takes time; c) it's often a nuisance to file and organize your material; d) it's tempting to plagiarize (copy directly) from the material without giving credit. Direct quotes must always be credited to the source, and then used in small doses (a paragraph maximum). People generally won't read long passages of block quotes.

7. Carefully analyze the bibliography or footnotes. Make a list of citations which seem to pertain to your topic. It's often more efficient to search bibliographies than to sift through the library's on-line card catalog, although you probably ought to do this anyway, because it's easy.

Newspapers and magazines/other periodicals
Let's get one thing said right away: periodical indexes are generally of limited use to historical researchers, particularly newspaper indexes. Yes, you always need to begin by looking at the index, or in the case of old magazines, looking at the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature or Poole's (19th century). But they usually won't tell you what you really need to know, as indexes aren't historical researchers. General procedure is to look at every page of every issue, one by one, to be sure you don't miss anything.

This is not nearly as daunting as you might think, if you approach it efficiently. Monthly magazines or journals, in particular, can be searched quickly. You should be able to do a number of years in only a few hours.

1. Scan the table of contents (for periodicals), looking for entire articles covering your topic.

2. In addition, page through the periodicals for headlines indicating topics relating to your area.

3. If you find something, take notes as noted above. Don't forget to include the page number, the title of the article, and the author, if there is one.

For newspapers you usually won't have a table of contents and, at least after the turn of the century, you may be dealing with a daunting number of pages every day. In this case, to control the workload, many researchers choose representative samples. They may only look at one week's issues each month, for the time period chosen. Or they may choose to look only at front pages. Keep in mind this isn't as comprehensive as looking at every page of every issue, but if you must control your workload, choose representative samples thoughtfully, so your findings are credible. For instance, if you're looking for Christmas-related features in July, or summer fashion ads in November, your findings may not be accurate!

Approach periodical sources:
1. by perusing in considerable detail a week or two of a daily to get a feeling for its content and style. This will help you to understand where you're most likely to find a topic you're searching for, and where you can likely skip. For instance, you won't find stories on foreign policy very often in the sports section. As you narrow down places to look in a newspaper, you can move more quickly through the material.

2. by reading headlines as a guide to content, and skipping those that don't seem to be at all germane. If you're working with old newspapers with no or skimpy headlines, scan the first paragraph to get a feeling, and scan the rest of the story for key words, if you think the topic may possibly be of use to you.

3. by taking notes as described above, remembering to include page numbers. Some researchers even include column numbers (column one, two, etc., counting from the left) for best accuracy.

Archival documents and other primary sources
Usually you can also use the scanning/key word technique when working through a box of archival material, looking through letters, brochures, government documents, etc. Obviously, if the title or introductory paragraph of a document indicates it will have nothing to do with your topic, skip it. For instance, recently I worked through archives of a Wyoming cattle association. I didn't bother to look at round up books and brand books, because that had nothing to do with my topic of interest. That having been said, if you think it MIGHT have something in there to interest you, it's better to take a look rather than risk missing something.

Usually you try to take verbatim notes of material in primary sources, so you can accurately quote it later. And it's ESSENTIAL to record the precise location of the record, such as "Johnson Papers, Box 2, Folder 7: letters to editors, 1919."

Copyright 2004 by Ross F. Collins <>