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Sources for Historical Research

Tertiary Sources

Tertiary sources synthesize existing information on a topic, drawing from primary and secondary sources and summarizing key information in an easy to read format, with the goal of synthesizing large amounts of information. They are often excellent starting points for research projects because they provide key facts, events and issues in an accessible format. Tertiary sources are also known as background or reference sources.

You can find them via the Background Sources tab of this research guide, or by searching in LibrarySearch and filtering by Resource Type: Reference Entries.

Examples of academic tertiary sources: 

Video: How to Find and Recognize Tertiary Sources for History 2:28 min.

Secondary Sources

In the discipline of History, secondary sources interpret and analyze primary sources, and are removed in time from the events they discuss. They can be scholarly or non-scholarly/popular.
 

Scholarly Secondary Sources

Scholarly monographs: Book length scholarly works that discuss a single topic in depth, present original research, and are written by a single author (or occasionally co-authors). Monographs are great for offering both breadth and depth on a particular topic. 

Edited collections: Book length scholarly works that are organized by an editor(s), where each chapter is an essay written by a different person presenting their own research, and where the chapters offer different perspectives on a common academic theme. 

Scholarly journal articlesA shorter scholarly work (~10-30 pages) published in a single issue of a scholarly journal (which is published on an on-going basis). Journal articles tend to focus on a very narrow aspect of a larger topic.

 

Find Scholarly Sources:
Use the MRU LibrarySearch tool - the search box on the library homepage - to find books and journal articles on your topic. 

Try limiting searches by:

  • using the sidebar options (e.g. limit results to only relevant subjects, or to preferred resource type, e.g., books)
  • using the advanced search to search for important terms in the subject or title fields on the drop-down menus.
  • refining results to only peer-reviewed sources (searches only within scholarly journals)
  • to find edited collections, try adding the term editor to your search
  • Sign in for enhanced results, to save "pinned" favourites lists and search queries.
Video: Recognising and finding scholarly sources 10:00 min
Skip straight to using MRU LibrarySearch: 3:33

Find Journal Articles in a History Database

Still looking for information or overwhelmed by LibrarySearch results? Use one of history-specific journal article databases on the ARTICLES tab of this guide. Recommended databases:

  • Historical Abstracts (for non-North American topics)
  • America History and Life (for American AND Canadian topics)​
How to use Historical Abstracts - University of Guelph video 2:07 min. You can apply all the advice given to both Historical Abstracts (world history) and America History & Life (Canadian and US history), since they function identically but search different content.

Primary Sources

Historical Primary Sources: Documents or other artefacts created at the time in history under study, generally by a person or group that experienced or witnessed the events of the day. 

Primary sources take many forms, and the most appropriate or helpful type of primary source will depend on your topic. Primary sources can be official records, private documents, published media sources, or historical data sources (e.g., census or vital statistics records. Some types of primary sources that are broadly helpful in undergraduate History courses, and relatively easy to find, include:

Government reports and other official documents: Royal Commission ... to investigate the facts relating to and the circumstances surrounding the communication, by public officials and other persons in positions of trust, of secret and confidential information to agents of a foreign power. (June, 1946)

Parliamentary debates or "hansard": House of Commons Debates, 32nd Parliament, 1st Session : Vol. 8 "Release of Gouzenko Papers" (March 24, 1981)

Newspaper articles: Mounties definition of subversion dangerous unacceptable (Globe and Mail, 1981)

Historical Primary Sources

Primary Sources for History

Video Chapters
1:42 - General tips for finding primary sources
4:03 - Finding primary sources in MRU LibrarySearch
5:29 - Finding primary sources via Google
6:55 - Finding primary sources via MRU History Guide, including historical newspapers

 

Visit the Primary Sources tab of this guide for more advice and access to MRU's digital primary source collections. 

Accessing Materials Beyond MRU Library

Call Numbers & Subject Headings

Call number: The address for a physical library item, so you can find it on the shelf. In MRU's LibrarySearch, it is displayed below the title of the book.

Subject heading: A tag used by libraries to describe what a book/article is about, and to group it with other items on the same topic. Subject headings use a controlled vocabulary shared by other libraries, to maintain consistency and make items easier to find. They can help improve your search terms, so look at them carefully. *Not all library items have subject headings.*

 

Chicago Style Citation

Most assignments in History require you to document or cite your sources using Chicago Style. 

MRU Chicago Style Citation Resources: includes a guide for using Chicago style, examples, and instructions for how to insert footnotes into a document. 

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Alice Swabey
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Email: aswabey@mtroyal.ca