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Scholarly vs. Popular Sources

The authority and credibility of the sources you choose in your research will contribute to the strength of the arguments you make in your own writing. Compare the following sources - how does the scholarly source differ from the popular one? List the signs of scholarliness you see in this Jamboard.

1. Scholarly Journal Article: Napoleon Bonaparte, Political Prodigy

2. Popular, non-scholarly source: Napoleon the Man - (download the PDF then use the hamburger menu in the left corner of the document to adjust page size).


Recognizing Scholarly Sources

The expectation in most academic History writing is that you call upon scholarly sources in your research. To determine if a source is scholarly, look for the following characteristics:

  • written by experts in the field, e.g., PhD or MA in History or a closely related field
  • the university the author is affiliated with is listed 
  • writing is formal and aimed at other experts 
  • sources are cited throughout and are plentiful
  • lengthy (for articles, look for 10+ pages)
  • often include an abstract (short summary of the article)
  • peer reviewed by other academic experts (Google the journal title if you aren't sure/there is no "peer reviewed" label). 
  • books can also be peer reviewed, but aren't usually labelled in the same way journals are. 
  • scholarly books are published by university presses (e.g., Oxford University Press) or publishers who specialize in academic publishing (e.g., Routledge)

Example of a scholarly book Votes for Women

Example of a scholarly article: Emmeline Pankhurst (1858 - 1928), Suffragette Leader and Single Parent in Edwardian Britain.

Background Reading to Get Started

Reading background or "reference" sources early on will help you find relevant books and journal articles for your assignment more quickly. Look for background sources that will help you learn the who, where, when and what relating to your author.

Though not peer reviewed, background sources can provide basic information that will help you generate a meaningful search vocabulary for finding more detailed, scholarly sources about the historical figure you are studying and the historical context in which they lived.

Look at the Background Sources page of this guide for good reference works, and keep searches in them very simple (one or two search words)

Recommended background sources:

- Credo Reference

- Oxford Reference

- World History in Context (look for the Biography or Reference tabs)

Finding the Original Book or Document From Which Your Excerpt Was Taken

Looking for the book or larger work from which your excerpt was taken? 

1. In Sources of the Western Tradition, you will find information as to the original source of the reading at the bottom of the page. Use the LibrarySearch tool to check to see if the Library has that work in our collection. Try adding the name of the editor or translator to find the specific work the excerpt in your sourcebooks was taken from. 



Use the author/creator limit to focus your results on results written by the person you are studying (or the editor/translator from your sourcebook), and not about them. Or use the resource type limit to focus on books only (the primary sources in this course are most likely to be in book form).

Image of limit for author or creator in the library search tool


2. If the Library doesn't appear to have the book mentioned in Sources, try searching for just author and title of the speech or text in LibrarySearch. In some cases, it may be included in a different collection of the author's works, or it may be included in a collection of primary sources written by a variety of authors in a particular time period. Staff at the Library's Service Desk or on chat may also be able to help if the search is proving tricky.

3. In some cases, it may not be possible to access a copy of the original text. In that case, focus your search on finding enough scholarly articles or books that discuss your figure and their significance to ensure you meet the minimum sources required for the assignment.

Secondary Sources: Books

Books are often the best starting point for studying a historical figure. They will address multiple aspects of a large topic, for example, discussing the life of a historical figure in one chapter, and key aspects of the historical time period in which they lived in another, or perhaps analyzing a specific primary source written by that figure in yet another chapter.

LibrarySearch is the best way to find print and electronic books relating to your historical figure or the period in which they lived.

Screenshot of LibrarySearch tool with the search words women french revolution

LibrarySearch isn't searching within the books themselves, so you may find additional sources by searching more broadly for the issue/time period in which your historical figure was a part (e.g. suffrage women britain history). Within those books, look at the chapter headings or check the index to see if your historical figure is discussed.

Additional Tips

  • Limit your search to books by selecting Resource Type - Books from the options on the right

Image of limit by resource type in LibrarySearch. The option for books is highlighted.

  • Make sure that the book you have chosen takes a scholarly approach to the topic 


Pro Tip

To find biographical information about your historical figure, limit your search by selecting Subject from the options from the right side, then choose the person's name from the list of options. See the advice above for ensuring the books you call upon are scholarly. 
subject search


Pro Tip

Did you know you can lock your filters in place in Library Search? Hover your cursor over the limit and click to look it in place. Now, even if you change your search terms, the limit will stay in place.

Image of option to lock in a filter. Cursor is hovering over the limit and image of lock appears.

Secondary Sources: Journal Articles

You can start your search for journal articles using LibrarySearch - the search box on the MRU Library homepage. If you find yourself overwhelmed with results there, 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 place and time period in which they lived, and their significance using relevant search terms to describe them.

Recommended journal article databases for History:

More Tips for Finding & Recognizing Scholarly Sources at MRU

This video explains how to recognize scholarly sources in History, and how to use LibrarySearch to find them.

Recognising and finding scholarly sources 10:00 min
Skip straight to using MRU LibrarySearch: 3:33

Search Tips

Finding too much?

  • Use AND between ideas to search for BOTH terms Mussolini AND politics
  • Put “quotation marks around important phrases" to search for exact phrases, e.g., "early modern"

Finding too little?

  • Use OR between similar terms/ideas to search for EITHER , e.g., (England OR Britain) (Middle Ages OR Medieval)
  • Put * after the root of a word to look for multiple endings, e.g, humani*

For better searching, think of multiple ways to describe your topic


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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.