The History Research Process


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Kristina Claunch
Library (NGL) Room 223G

Encyclopedias, Dictionaries, and Other Reference Works

A crucial first step is consulting reference works to solidify your understanding of background facts, timelines, biographical details, and so forth. Reference works include dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases, chronologies, bibliographies, handbooks, and so forth.

The information you obtain from reference works will help flesh out your narrative detail and will improve your understanding and search strategies when you engage with the scholarly literature.


Whereas scholarly articles often seek to argue an original idea or prove a certain interpretation of historical events, reference works usually seek to give a factual overview of an event by presenting simple, core facts with little interpretation. For example, let's imagine we are comparing an encyclopedia entry and a scholarly journal article, both about War X.

  • Encyclopedia entry on War X will likely: 
    • list or briefly describe major players on both sides;
    • list or briefly describe major battles and important events during the course of the war;
    • list or briefly describe outcomes / resulting circumstances of the war;
    • provide chronological overview (timelines) and geographical overviews (maps);
    • If there are various possible causes of the war, they will likely all be listed briefly, but without persuasive commentary on their relative merits.
  • Scholarly journal article on War X might take one or several of the following approaches instead:
    • discuss one or more major players in greater depth/detail, arguing the person's significance (or insignificance) to the outcome of the war;
    • discuss a certain major theme/trend/condition during the course of the war, arguing how that theme affected the war's outcome or why that theme is essential to understanding the war;
    • debate the significance of the war's outcome, perhaps by discussing its impact on subsequent times, peoples, events;
    • debate the most significant cause of the war, or debate the relative impact of various contributing factors;
    • and so forth.


Major Sources for Reference Works

Below are some of the major resources you can use to access reference sources:


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