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HIST 300: Guide for History Thesis Writers

Confirm a viable topic

In consultation with your faculty thesis advisor, you will articulate a broad beginning of a thesis topic.  Through your initial research in preparation for submitting your thesis proposal and preliminary bibliography, you will begin to narrow your thesis topic to an appropriate scope.

It's crucial to confirm early that you have access to enough primary sources to complete research on your selected topic.

Consider the following questions to fill out the worksheets linked below:

  • What did you discuss with your adviser about the feasibility of your topic?

  • Did they suggest any sources that could be essential?

  • What other sources did they suggest you look into?

  • What would your “dream” sources be? (i.e. I hope ____’s papers are published. I hope there was a trial about _____. I hope for newspaper coverage of ___ event from _____ perspective.)

  • Where would you locate your topic in the bigger picture?  One way to approach that is in terms of its position within social, economic or political conditions (those factors also happen to be keywords used in the Library of Congress Subject Headings' controlled vocabulary).

  • What scholarly conversations are relevant to your topic? Identify the scholars, ideas and debates that are essential to your topic. How will you fit your thesis into that conversation?  THAT is the basis of your proposal!!

  • What sources may be easiest or hardest to attain?  What sources will be easier or harder to read and work with and how?  What opportunities and risks could a digital version of a particular source present?

Identify key secondary sources

Identify key secondary sources. It's crucial to place your thesis in the framework of some larger scholarly conversations. Identify scholars whose work you will engage with early on in your research process.

As you search through library catalogs, take note (literally, make lists) of the Library of Congress Subject Headings associated with your topic. The subject headings will be the same in other library catalogs and databases, and that language provides crucial keyword searching terms.

When you are searching in library catalogs for book length studies about your topic, remember to search broader than your topic as well as in narrower related sub-topics. Many book length secondary sources will not require reading in entirety. Use table of contents and indexes effectively to identify crucial chapters adn passages. 

Peruse the bibliographies and footnotes in your secondary sources for references to primary sources. Also take note of dates/events, organization names, personal names, names of particular policies, laws or initiatives etc.; all of these are potential keywords for finding additional primary sources.

Confirm your primary source base

Before you begin searching for primary sources, ask yourself: What types of sources are most likely to contribute perspective on my topic?

Newspapers and magazines, personal narrative sources like memoirs and letters, government documents, the papers of organizations, scholarly journals of the historical period (ask a librarian and your advisor about how to handle a "scholarly article" as a primary source?)  You will search for different types of sources using different techniques.

Use the Advanced Search screen in Vassar Library Catalog to:

* place limits on your search by location. language or document type.  Limiting to Microtext is one way of perusing some of Vassar's primary sources. 

* do "Subject" searches.  The Subject search of the Advanced Search will look for keywords ONLY in the Subject fields of catalog records. Knowing the vocabulary used in the subject searches will help you do effective searches of library collections.  For example, Library of Congress Subject Headings use the following keywords to indicate primary sources: sources, letters, interviews, speeches, personal narratives, diaries, correspondence, sermons, notebooks, sketches, description and travel, treaties, pamphlets, biography (includes memoirs), newspapers, periodicals, pictorial works, art, architecture, portraits, caricatures and cartoons, cookery, decorative arts, furniture, material culture, guide books, maps, fiction, poetry, periodicals, newspapers, bibliography, early works to 1800  It's not a perfect system, but an effective technique.  Example search: (united states women) AND (sources or correspondence)

* find Reference sources like encyclopedias and historical dictionaries by limiting to "Reference" instead of "View Entire Collection. Never underestimate how helpful these sources are in establishing historical context, suggesting keywords, identifying related people/events/places for your topic and providing bibliographies of important primary or secondary sources

* identify digital collections of primary sources. Some of the digital primary sources that appear in our catalog are from unique databases that are more effectively searched in their native interface. If you find some digital sources in our catalog that you are interested in finding more of, ask a librarian.

Meet with your Librarian and Thesis Adviser

Some tips for effective meetings with your librarian and thesis advisers:

* Bring a working bilbiography with you. Even if you're not sure about many of the sources on there, it will give your adviser an idea of what work you are doing and what direction you are going in.

* If you're looking for a particular source you found cited somewhere else, show your librarian the original source you found the citation in.

* It helps to have an idea about the types of sources you are interested in finding.  Is it a personal narrative, a foreign newspaper, a magazine written from a particular political perspective?  Do you have secondary sources addressing the relevant "layers" for your thesis questions (this can be contextualizing historical background or historiographical arguments)

* Ask about what sources may be easiest or hardest to attain?  What sources will be easier or harder to read and work with and how?  What opportunities and risks could a digital version of a particular source present?

Ask A Librarian

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