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Books for Writing in History

How to Research for a Paper

Step One – Selecting a Topic

Your instructors may assign a topic for your research paper, but very often your instructor may let you choose your own topic within a certain area of the course you are taking. To select a topic for your research paper, you need to choose a subject that interests you as well as to consider the availability of the resources.

Sources that can help you select research topics:

  • Clio Notes

    • Clio Notes included in America: Histroy & Life and Historical Abstracts databases provide research topics by time period, event, and issue. 
    • You can find a link to the Clio Notes within the two databases on the top of the page. 

  • Subject Encyclopedia
    • Can familiarize you with some of the different contents within which your topic has been discussed in a discipline.
    • You can find encyclopedia in the library reference collection easily by limiting your search to "Reference"

  • Textbooks
    • Textbooks introduce a topic and generally include a bibliography of books and articles consulted. 
  • Articles
    • Scholarly journal articles give you a chance to see what's been written on your topic and they include bibliographies of books and articles consulted. 

Step Two – Narrowing Down Your Topic

Once you have decided on a topic for your paper, you need to make sure your topic is neither too broad nor too narrow and your research question can be researched. For example, “labor history” is not a topic, but a general subject area. You need to ask a question about the labor history, such as:

 The ideology behind many of the unions in the 19th century was based on the social theories of writers such as Karl Marx. How did Marxism change the way that American laborers organized themselves?

These questions or statements can help you narrow down a general subject area into a manageable topic that focuses on a clearly identified issue so that you can examine it thoroughly within the allotted time and space. Some of the methods you can use to narrow down your topics are:

  • Time period: last 10 years, 20th century, …
  • Place: U.S., California, So Cal, L.A., …
  • Person/Group: politician, actor, ethnic group, …
  • Event/Aspect: Millennium, religious, …

Once you have a focused topic (normally in a question or statement format), you can mark keywords and develop alternate words and ready to use them to conduct searches in library catalogs or databases. Using the example above, we can develop a list of keywords:

Question or Statement

The ideology behind many of the unions in the 19th century was based on the social theories of writers such as Karl Marx. How did Marxism change the way that American laborers organized themselves?


  • Karl Marx, Marxism
  • Social theories, ideology
  • American, United States
  • Laborers, labor, labor union, union
  • Change, influence, impact

Step Three-- Understanding the Need for Secondary and/or Primary Sources

First, we need to understand what primary and secondary sources are. 

Primary sources provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation. They are created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented. Often these sources are created at the time when the events or conditions are occurring, but primary sources can also include autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories recorded later. Primary sources are characterized by their content, regardless of whether they are available in original format, in microfilm/microfiche, in digital format, or in published format. (Primary Sources at Yale:

To find more information about primary sources, how to find primary sources, go to Primary Source Guide

Secondary Sources are materials that digest, analyze, evaluate and interpret inforamtion contained within primary sources or otehr secondary sources. Examples of secondary sources are:

  • Books, such as biographies (not autobiographies), textbooks, encyclopedias, dictionaries, handbooks
  • Articles, such literature reviews, commentaries, research articles in all subject disciplines
  • Criticism of works in literature, art and music

You want to find a list of secondary source materials relevant to your topic, or if necessary, you need to conduct a literature review to get a list of essential books and articles for your topic.  The purposes of starting your research with secondary sources are:

  • to find background information about your topic
  • to be aware of scholarly research in teh area of your topic
  • to be able to narrow down or broaden your topic

Subject encyclopedias, text book reserve items assigned by professors, databases, adn CLIO Notes in America: History & Life and Historical Abstracts are all good places to start your secondary sources research.

Step Four-- Understand How to Use AND, OR, WILDCARD and TRUNCATION

  • AND -- narrows your search to retrieve only records that contain both or more words
  • OR -- retrieves matches for either of the two or more terms, so you get more records
  • WILDCARD -- uses a symbol within a word to replace one letter, e.g.: wom*n will search both women and woman
  • TRUNCATION -- uses a symbol at the end of a word to replace any number of letters, e.g.: child* will search both child and children

Watch a Boolean Logic Video at:

Step Five -- Conducting Search

John F. Kennedy Memorial Library
California State University, Los Angeles
5151 State University Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90032-8300