Sources used for Written Assignments for History


Types of Sources | Citations | Internet Sources | Research Plan

Sources are where historians get their information about what happened in the past. Like the clues at a murder scene for a detective, they provide the facts that support historical arguments and conclusions. As a student writing a paper about some aspect of history, you also will need to go to sources. You cannot just write something from your own "feelings" or "experience." You must instead use sources that record and describe past events and people.

Whenever you write an assignment be sure to use the suggested minimum number of sources as listed in the assignment's description in the syllabus. Using more sources will improve your grade (as well as teach you more about the subject). You should also use the proper kinds of sources, as detailed in the syllabus.

Always, you should be aware about what kind of sources you are using. The descriptions below can help you with that.

The first challenge with sources is finding them. For more on finding sources, click here.

The second challenge is using them.To use them you must understand them. For that, see below.

The third challenge is to evaluate the information in the source for your purposes. For more on evaluating sources, click here.

A. Understanding Types of Sources

There are different ways to organize sources. One basic division is between non-written (remains, buildings, coins, statues, clothing, etc.) artifacts, and written documents (records, diaries, newspapers, treaties, etc.). For most courses, you will only need to understand written sources.

Among written sources, historians usually assign three levels of relevance: Primary, Secondary and Tertiary. These categories take their names from the Latin for one, two or three steps removed from the original event.


Third level sources of history are generalized surveys of a specific subject. Such sources often include things like textbooks, handbooks, dictionaries, and encyclopedias, many of which ae reference works in print and available in libraries. Articles in these may be very accurate, many having been written by specialists. But only a limited amount of space can be devoted to each topic, so coverage tends to be superficial.
In our wired age these days, most people tend to begin with Wikipedia. While it is getting better on historical subjects, its use is still problematic. Best is the established, reputable Encyclopedia Britannica, available Online.

Tertiary sources are often the best place to begin research on a topic. Since handbook articles often include useful bibliographies, they can show you where to begin looking for useful secondary sources. And they often describe some of the basic historical controversies, agreements and gaps in knowledge about its subject.

If you use such a source, be sure to cite it in your notes or bibliography. Real detail and understanding, however, only comes from looking at secondary sources.

Instead of using a reliable reference works, many people increasingly begin research on the internet using search engines like Google or Bing. Most of these sources that turn up in these searches are so superficial or produced by amatuers, that they count merely as tertiary sources.


Second level sources of history are usually produced by people who, after the historical event have examined Books, journals, and magazines are the most common, and many are available in the college library or through inter-library loan. The best are produced by trained, professional historians who specialize in a particular field of history. These sources should probably form the bulk of what you research.

Historical training offers an assurance that solid standards of quality have been upheld by being "refereed." Historians do this through "peer review:" having other historians read and critique works before they are published. The better publishers and scholarly journals do this, while some publishers and popular magazines do not. Thus some history writing gains little respect from the majority of history scholars, and should be viewed with skepticism. You should try to inform yourself about the scholarly standing of the source you are using.

Depending on your subject, there will be many different kinds of secondary sources available, or just a few. You should try to select a variety of sources, seeking to cover all the aspects of a historical problem.

Increasingly commonly used are sources from the internet. But be wary of sources drawn from the world wide web and typical search engines like Google or Bing, since too many are produced by reckless amateurs. Most of these sources are so superficial that they count merely as tertiary sources.


First level sources bring you closest to the actual event. Many are actual artifacts around us, like statues, buildings, or tools. We remain ignorant about the past, because people did not record events. Or many records have been lost to history. And sometimes sources are forbidden, such as the Bush Administration's Executive Order 13233 of November 1, 2001. See critiques here.

Without special training, though, you should mostly use published sources in the written word. These include official public records (laws, administrative forms, speeches, judgments, treaties), press/journalist articles, eye-witness accounts, letters, diaries, biography/autobiography/memoir, historical writing, literature & philosophy, inscriptions, etc. Common to all primary sources is that they were produced at the time of the event to which they relate. Unfortunately such primary sources are mostly in far off libraries, archives and museums.

Fortunately you can also come into easy contact with primary sources that have been reprinted from original documents, photographed, turned into electronic media, translated, or otherwise edited. While serious historians usually try to get to the originals, students can easily settle for reproductions and editions and translations of primary sources. It is always beneficial to use as many primary sources as possible, even when not required.

B. Quotations:

It is almost always best to paraphrase your sources, rather than use direct quotations. Using your own words shows your own mastery of the material. That means understanding and rewriting content from your sources.

If you do use direct words from a source, in academic writing they must be indicated as a quotation AND properly cited.

If you are allowed to quote, all quotes must be properly cited. You must never use more than three of another person's words without quotation marks (or if the quote is longer than 3 lines, put it in a block of single-spaced and indented text without quotation marks). Either method is followed by a citation to the original source. For more information see citation.html and/or presentation.html.

USING a DIRECT QUOTE WITHOUT QUOTATION MARKS (or if longer than three normal lines blocked as indented, single-spaced text) IS PLAGIARISM and a VIOLATION of ACADEMIC INTEGRITY.

C. Citations:

You must cite each and every quote, and/or all other factual information, judgments or analysis drawn from your sources, even when you use your own wording.

Citation is important because it reveals the quality of work that supports your writing. The kind of sources you use, and how you use them, enables a reader to better evaluate your arguments. A good citation should always provide enough information so that another person can find the source you have used.

Citations must be in the TURABIAN FORMAT. For more information see citation.html and/or presentation.html.


For more on Academic Integrity and the use of sources go to the History Department's Academic Honesty page.

Types of Sources | Quotations | Citations | Internet Sources| Research Plan

Copyright © MMXIII by Brian A. Pavlac
Last Revision: 2018 November 27

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