Skip to Main Content

History: Choose a Topic / Review the Literature

guide to history research for affiliates of The College of New Jersey (TCNJ)

Choose a Topic

1930s cartoon man hunched over book

  • Personal Interest: If feasible, work on a topic that interests you (e.g., Meiji Restoration or Mexican Revolution). Think creatively. Personal interest increases motivation, which often predicts success.

  • Consult an Expert: History majors engage with the writings of historians (i.e., the historiography). Why not begin with an expert who already knows that literature and/or is expert at identifying it? In other words, your professor and/or librarian can help you to choose a topic and identify relevant readings.

Review the Literature

  • head in profile against psychadelic backgroundBrainstorm: Identify synonyms for major concepts (e.g., Athenian Empire = Delian League). Use these "keywords" to search databases such as Historical Abstracts and JSTOR for journal articles. There are many ways to brainstorm for keywords — think-pair-share activities, analysis of an image related to your topic, etc. — but mind maps are my favorite. A mind map or concept map uses shape, color, and other visual cues to help researchers think carefully about their research topics. Check out this video to see a mindmap in action.
  • Citation (or Footnote) Chasing: A popular research technique in which the bibliographies of works already located (or assigned by your professor) are examined for additional sources containing further information. Books (monographs), journal articles, and scholarly encyclopedia articles typically all contain bibliographies. Footnote chasing is a favorite of many scholars, but it is not the only or even most efficient method of reviewing the literature. Only moderately time consuming, footnote chasing tends to pay huge dividends.
  • Consult Reference Works: Reference works list, index, summarize, or in some other way facilitate access to secondary sources. Many important reference works in history are listed on the Reference Shelf tab of this guide.
  • Abstracting and Indexing Databases: These are reference works that provide citations and/or abstracts of the literature of a discipline. Print indexes (and their online analogs) use controlled vocabulary (or subject headings) to help researchers understand the nature of the content indexed and to efficiently pinpoint relevant sources. See the Find Articles: Core Databases tab of this guide to access the most important history databases.
  • Published Bibliographies: A bibliography consists of a list of sources written on a given subject, or that share one or more common characteristics of language, form, period, place of publication, author, and so on. A bibliography can be comprehensive or selective. For a book-length example, refer to The United States in World War I: A Bibliographic Guide. See the Reference Shelf tab for additional examples of bibliographies in history.
  • Browse the Secondary Literature: Browse the latest issue of a peer-reviewed history journal. This method is more time consuming than searching abstracting and indexing databases. It is nevertheless a good option for identifying important disciplinary debates and trends. Find online history journals in the Journals tab of this guide.

Source for definitions: ODLIS: Online Dictionary of Library and Information Science