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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).


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Though not peer reviewed, these types of source will provide basic information that will help you generate a meaningful search vocabulary for finding more detailed, scholarly sources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 Reference tab)

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 their collection.

Screenshot of LibrarySearch tool with the search terms machiavelli price

If the specific edition of the source is not available through the Library, you may use a different translation or edition of the text instead.

Use the Resource Type limit to focus on books only or the Author limit to focus your results on results by the person, not about them.

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 the 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 we may have the primary source material. 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. These means that the book is written by an expert in the field (e.g. a Professor of History) who cites the source material they used throughout the book. Typically, these books are published by university presses (e.g. Oxford University Press) or publishers who specialize in academic publishing (e.g. Routledge)


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
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 - 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 place and time period in which they lived, and their significance using relevant search terms to describe them.

Not sure if your source is a scholarly article? They typically have the following characteristics:

  • written by an expert in the field, usually a PhD or similar in HIstory or a closely related field
  • the university/institution the author is affiliated with is listed 
  • writing is formal and aimed at other experts in the field
  • sources are cited throughout
  • lengthy
  • peer reviewed (Google the journal title if you aren't sure or it there is no peer reviewed label)
  • Example of a scholarly article: Emmeline Pankhurst (1858 - 1928), Suffragette Leader and Single Parent in Edwardian Britain.
Recommended journal article databases for History:

Tips for Finding & Recognizing Scholarly Sources

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


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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.