The History Research Process


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Kristina Claunch
Library (NGL) Room 223G

Example Assessment of Primary Sourcebase #2

Let's say you're interested in this research question: How did medical techniques and technology evolve as a result of the American Civil War?  [Hey, I never said I was brilliant at thinking up novel questions which aren't overdone; that part is YOUR job!]

Following the chart above, let's walk through the issues that we need to consider. Remember that this is only meant to be a mental exercise, a kind of reality check before you spend time performing actual searches.

Primary Source Feasibility Evaluation Graphic section 1

  • What sources would we hope to find? Who would the authors be?
    We might look for diaries, letters, reports, or other kinds of documents written by the doctors and nurses on the front lines and in the hospitals. We also might look for government and military records. Also, the diaries, letters, and memoirs of wounded soldiers might yield information about the treatment they received. Considering the quantity of amputations during the war, another opportunity for relevant sources (from a different angle) might be documentation of the manufacturers of artificial limbs.


So far, so good: it sounds as though there are a lot of hypothetical sources which one could imagine. Let's move on down the diagram from the previous tab to consider the other criteria.

Primary Source Feasibility Evaluation Graphic section 2

  • Of those authors, how many are likely to have actually created sources?
    Government and military records are certain to have been created, as are documents from artificial limb manufacturers. Diaries, letters, and reports from doctors and nurses are also extremely likely to exist. Soldiers' diaries and letters also have a good likelihood of having been created; many soldiers wrote home from the front, and even for those soldiers who were not literate, they may have had opportunities to dictate letters to nurses while wounded and hospitalized. 

Primary Source Feasibility Evaluation Graphic section 3

  • Of those sources, how many likely survived?
    The American Civil War was relatively recent history (e.g., 19th century rather than 12th), and it was a major and defining event in American history. Significant quantities of existing documentation related to the experience of this war has been preserved.

Primary Source Feasibility Evaluation Graphic section 4

  • Of those, how many are likely to have been published or digitized?
    Considering the defining nature of this war, and the significant continuing interest in researching it, many efforts have been undertaken to publish, digitize, and otherwise preserve as much existing documentation as possible.

Primary Source Feasibility Evaluation Graphic section 5

  • Of those, how many are likely in English (or another language that you can read)?
    Although there certainly might be some diaries and letters written by immigrants, a significant quantity of the existing documentation, including all of the official government and military records and much of the personal writing as well, will be in English.


Note: even when your topic is in U.S. history, don't just skip right over the language question; really take a moment to think about it. Is this topic likely to be addressed in Spanish-language newspapers from the southwest? Letters written by German immigrants? Documents created by Chinese laborers in the west? Even "United States history" does not automatically mean that the primary sources will be in English or a language that you can read.

So far, this mental exercise paints a very promising picture of the primary sourcebase. There is still one last point to consider, although it is less significant than the others:

Primary Source Feasibility Evaluation Graphic section 6

  • Of those, how many is our library likely to own?
    Overall, our History department has historically been strongest in American history. Furthermore, by consulting the SHSU class schedules, you will see that our History department teaches courses on the Civil War, at both the undergraduate and graduate level, almost every semester. It is realistic to conclude that a reasonable portion of the library's budget for History materials is spent on items related to the War.
    Why is this criteria is less significant than the others?
    Because you are able to access materials beyond our library. The TexShare program allows you to check out published materials from nearby Texas libraries. Interlibrary Loan helps you to borrow published materials from other libraries, both near and far. And digital archives allow you access to some archival collections from other institutions.

    But making use of these other options will require a greater amount of time and effort, so it is beneficial to plan ahead! Start searching early to determine what kinds of sources are easily available here at SHSU and what sources you may need to expend more effort to find and access.

Just from walking through this critical thinking process, we can conclude that the hypothetical research question would likely be very manageable within the scope of this class.
We still need to actually search for and assess the existing sources, but we have deduced that this has a good chance of being a feasible question.


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