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Identifying Scholarly Sources in History

Being able to recognize a scholarly source is an important part of doing academic research. Scholarly sources in History generally take the form of books, book chapters and journal articles. When evaluating a source for scholarliness, you should consider:

Authority of the author and publisher - Consider the expertise of the author on the subject. Look for academic historians affiliated with a university. Look for publishers who specialize in academic writing.

- Process - Consider the process used to both create and published the source. Is it based on original research? How can you tell? What was the editorial process? 

- Purpose - What is the intended purpose of the source? Is it an in-depth analysis meant to inform other academics? Is it intended to entertain? Thinking about the intended audience of the source is often helpful. 


Take a few minutes to skim the sources listed below.

  • You won't have time to read them thoroughly, try skimming the beginning and final sections of each. 
  • What indicators do you see that distinguish the scholarly sources from the non-scholarly sources?
  • Make a note of your observations in this Jamboard, using the sticky note icon on the left panel. 

1. Article in a History magazine, popular, non-scholarly sourceSorcery in New France

2. Article in a scholarly History journal, scholarly source:  Presenting the "Poor Miserable Savage" to French Urban Elites: Commentary on North American Living Conditions in Early Jesuit Relations. (Be sure to follow the PDF Full-text link on the left.).

3. Book review in a scholarly journal, non-scholarly sourceBonds of Alliance

4. Book (a.k.a. scholarly monograph), scholarly source: Education in New France

Background Reading to Inform Your Research

Once you have a topic in mind, spend some time doing simple background reading on the topic. This will help you develop a basic understanding of the topic, and introduce you to important terms that may help your searches.

  • Read some background information in a relevant encyclopedia or historical dictionary:
  • Note that because encylopedias and historical dictionaries are tertiary sources based on existing information rather than original research, and do not undergo peer review, they won't count as one of your scholarly sources. They can, however, be invaluable in getting a grasp on the broad topic you are studying.

Use a good search strategy to look for sources

Build your vocabulary: As you read encyclopedias and skim possible scholarly sources, read book/chapter and article titles carefully to help improve your search vocabulary. The larger and more flexible your search vocabulary, the more successful you will be. 

Be aware that language changes over time: This is particularly important if you are studying a very early pre-Confederation topic, or if your topic relates to Indigenous people, where terminology has evolved considerably in libraries and in the field of History.

Use keywords and short phrases: Never use sentences or sentence fragments. Choose keywords that are vital to your topic. Use terms an expert would use, avoiding slang. Your course outline offers some good starting points.

  • A good search
    "new france" women (First Nations OR Indigenous OR Aboriginal)
  • A poor search
    experience of Indigenous women in New France

Be prepared to broaden or narrow your search terms: If you are having trouble finding relevant information, consider broader topics or umbrella terms that you might use to get to relevant information. For example, a book on Indigenous women's history in Canada might include a chapter on Wendat women; a book on New France may include chapters on the economy, legal system, Indigenous relations and gender roles. 

Don't judge a book by its title: If a book or article shows up in your search results, there is a good chance it includes a chapter or section relevant to your topic, even if the title doesn't sound relevant. Do keyword searches within ebooks and articles, and use the tables of contents for print and ebooks.

Don't settle for the first results you find: the most relevant results aren't always on the top of the list or on the first page of results. Browse through for the best sources, not the easiest ones to find.


Search for books, book chapters, and journal articles in LibrarySearch

Use the MRU LibrarySearch tool - the search box on the library homepage - to find information in all formats (books, journal articles, encyclopedias etc.) simultaneously.

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)
ACTIVITY: Find two books and/or journal articles on your topic in LibrarySearch. "Pin" them to a list and generate a Chicago style citatoin using the Cite It function.

Find Journal Articles in a History Database

Still looking for information or overwhelmed by LibrarySearch results? 

America History and Life is a database dedicated to journals related to North American history.

Try the Advanced Search, where you can:

  • Limit searches by the historical time period discussed in the articles
  • Search for terms in the title, subject or abstract of articles
  • Exclude book review results or results in languages you are unable to read

Accessing Materials Beyond MRU Library

Chicago Style Citation

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Alice Swabey
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