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Secondary Sources: Reference Works/Background Sources

START HERE with background information. For basic biographical details and information about the historical context of an author or an event, the best place to look is in a specialized reference or tertiary work (often called an encyclopedia, historical dictionary or handbook). These will help you learn the basic facts to inform the rest of your research.

  • See the Background Sources tab on this guide for electronic historical encyclopedias
    • Choose an encyclopedia collection (e.g., Oxford Reference, Credo Academic Core, Dictionary of Scientific Biography etc.)
    • Search inside that collection by your author's name OR title of your source. Keep searches very simple for best results.
  • LibrarySearch, on the MRU Library homepage, also contains reference works/encyclopedias - limit by resource type to reference entries for best results.

  • Pay close attention to what you find in the encyclopedia entry - it should tell you where and when your author lived, and possibly some basic context for their writing. This is important, as it will help you find books and journal articles about your source and its author.

  • Note that specialized reference works/encyclopedias like the ones mentioned above are considered tertiary sources - they gather together existing facts or research on a topic and summarize them for quick reference. They have not been peer reviewed in the way scholarly books and journal articles are, and are intended as a source of basic information, rather than a source of scholarly research.

How to Find and Recognize Reference/Background Sources for History 2:28 min.

Secondary Sources: Books

After you complete your encyclopedia/background source based research, your next move to should be to look at books about your author, the place and historical time period in which they lived, as well as books that discuss the primary text itself. After encyclopedias, books are likely to be the most helpful type of secondary source for your analysis.

You will need to know some basic facts about your primary source in order to find a meaningful secondary source, including who wrote it, when, and where they lived. 

  • Use LibrarySearch ( the Books, articles & more search box) on the MRU Library homepage. 

  • Limit to only books by selecting Resource Type - Books on the right panel.

  • Keep in mind that often a primary text (as in, a book that includes the text of the Plato's Apology) will often also include an introduction that explains the importance of the text and its historical context, or information about the author, so don't overlook those kinds of books.

  • Use the right-side filters in LibrarySearch or the advanced search screen to do a subject search for your author's name, or possibly for your primary source title. This will turn up books ABOUT Homer, for example, or books ABOUT the Iliad.

  • Also try an all fields search using keywords that describe the historical time period & larger issues addressed in the primary source. Make note of new terms as you go
                     Sample search:  "15th century" feminism pisan 

  • If the source you have chosen is not well known or widely studied, you will need to work hard to learn about the place and time period in which it was written, and perhaps also, about the type of person who wrote it - if you are unable to find information about the specific author, or if the author is unknown.

Secondary Sources: Journal Articles

Journal articles should be the last place you look for information for your source analysis. They tend to be narrow in focus, and will be most helpful once you have already gained considerable knowledge about your primary source and its author from books and encyclopedias. 

You can start your search for journal articles using LibrarySearch - which is the Books, Articles and More search box on the MRU Library. If you find yourself overwhelmed with results there, you can try some of the following journal article databases which search fewer, but potentially more relevant, journals.

Use the same strategies you used to find scholarly books - look for articles about author's life, the text, and the place and time period in which they lived, using relevant search terms to describe them.

Is Your Secondary Source Relevant & Appropriate?

Is Your Secondary Source Relevant?

A secondary source is likely to be a relevant for your assignment if any one of the following apply:

  • It clearly discusses the life and/or writing of your primary source author (if your author's name is in the title of the secondary source, that is a good sign). Here's an example book using Machiavelli as the primary source author to be studied.
  • It clearly discusses your specific primary source (e.g., the primary source is mentioned in the title of the secondary source OR in one of the chapter headings/description of the secondary source). Here's an example book where the primary source being studied is "The Prince" 
  • It clearly discusses the place and time period in which your author lived, and/or the larger issues of that era (e.g., the region in which the primary source author lived is in the secondary source title, and the title or description of that source makes some mention of the time period during or close to the time your primary source author lived). Here's an example journal article using both the place and time period in which Machiavelli lived.
Is Your Secondary Source Scholarly?

For this assignment, you must be able to find and recognize scholarly secondary sources. Some indicators of scholarliness include:

  • An author with an advance academic degree (e.g., PhD) in History or closely related field.
  • Substantially long - for articles, this usually means at least 12 pages long.
  • Includes footnotes or bibliography - scholarly sources always cite the research used to write them. Look for footnotes and/or bibliographies
  • Peer review - scholarly sources go through a rigorous peer review process; if you are unsure, visit the journal's website and look for mention of their peer review guidelines.
  • Is based on original research and is aimed at other researchers.
  • Has an academic publisher, e.g., an university press. If the publisher is not a university press, go to the publisher website and investigate further. Look for the types of books they publish or for author guidelines that mention peer review. 

NOTE: the three examples listed above, under the heading "Is Your Secondary Source Relevant" are all examples of scholarly sources.

Finding Your Full Length Primary Source

Finding your Primary Source in the MRU Library Collection

Use LibrarySearch (the Books, articles & more search box) on the MRU Library homepage to find books and journal articles.

To find a full-length version of your primary source:

  • Search for the specific primary source by it's title, and include the author's name, 
    e.g. Peloponnesian War Thucydides
    You may need to find a larger collection of the author's work, or works from the same time period or theme, and look at it to see if your source is included.
  • If you know who edited or translated the version in your source book, try adding that person's name to your search.
  • Look for book results (rather than journal articles or reference articles) using the filters on the right side of the LibrarySearch screen.
  • Look for results that show as being BY your author and translator (e.g. it should say "by Herodotus").   Adjust your search results with the filters on the right side of the screen and limit by author to your primary source author's name.
  • Be aware of and search using any alternate titles of the primary source that may exist. Many sources will have been know by various titles over the centuries. A quick Wikipedia search might help with this.
  • Experiment with different spellings of your primary source and author 
    E.g., Plato's Apology vs. Plato's Apologie, Hammurapi vs. Hammurabi​, Einhard vs. Einhart

Search results can also be filtered to available online if coming to campus isn't possible. Use your MyMRU log on to access the full text.


Finding your Primary Source in a Reputable Online Collection

You may be able to find a full length version of your primary source freely available online. Note that the collections listed below also include secondary sources, so evaluate carefully:

Perseus Project - Greek and Roman sources

Internet History Sourcebook - Ancient, medieval and more contemporary sources

Project Gutenberg - A wide variety of well known printed books that have been digitized

Internet Archive - A wide variety of printed books that have been digitized. This is a very large collection, look very carefully to ensure what you find is actually a primary document.


Or search directly via Google for primary documents

  • Search for your primary document by its title and author, and add the phrase "primary document" or "primary source" to your search terms. 

  • Be sure to evaluate the reliability of the website and the organization that hosts it - look for primary documents posted by universities, libraries, or academic organizations for the best chance of the document being complete and accurate. Primary documents that show the original print source of the source are preferred (as in, they list the name of the original publisher and publication date of the book the source came from).

Recognizing Scholarly Sources

Unsure of what a scholarly article looks like? Check out this guide to recognizing scholarly sources. 

For scholarly books, look for:

  • Academic publishers, e.g., a university press
  •  Scholarly authors, with an advanced degree in the discipline they write about. 
  •  Ample footnotes/references
  • Scholarly terminology.

History Librarian

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Alice Swabey
Drop-in help Mondays 12-2 at the Library Service Desk. Appointments available via Google Meet or in-person. Email help is also available.