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Finding historical information

Learn where and how to find secondary and primary historical sources.

Starting your research

What you can learn from this page:

  • Establishing your topic within its broader historical context
  • Understanding primary vs secondary sources
  • Reading lists, reference lists and footnotes are helpful starting points

Think about the broader historical context

When you want to research a topic from the past, it's important to place that topic within its broader historical context.

Think about:

  • related events
  • names
  • dates
  • places
  • political issues
  • societal issues

This helps you recognise the significance of any historical sources you might find, and interpret the source's information.

Then identify what you already know about the subject and what you need to clarify. Lastly, make sure you understand what primary and secondary sources are, where to find them and how these terms are relative to the time period, intended usage and subject discipline.

Gather background information & identify your knowledge gaps

Start by listing any key facts and helpful points that you already know (for example people, organisations or movements, dates, events, places or main issues).

As well as listing your starting points, you should list anything you're unsure of and that you need to confirm or clarify.

You may have lots of unanswered questions at this very early stage of your research and that's OK.

Understand what "primary" & "secondary" sources mean

Primary sources

Primary sources are records of firsthand accounts (autobiographies, documentary history books, interviews in contemporary newspapers, government reports).

Primary sources provide us with a real sense of what was happening with a person, event or specific period in time.

Secondary sources

Secondary sources are secondhand accounts which analyse and interpret past events using primary sources (books, textbooks, journal articles).

Secondary sources provide us with historical definitions and overviews; they are usually written at a much later time after the historical event or era and draw together a range of useful comments and other relevant information.

Recognise your sources in the appropriate context

Sometimes it can be hard to decide if something may be a primary source or not. Sometimes a secondary source can also serve as a primary source, depending on the context in which you're viewing it and wanting to use it.

For example, a well known author writes an article about a particular historical topic, that would be used as a secondary source. Years later someone decides to research the life and works of that author, in that context that same article would be used as a primary source.

Watch this video to see some other helpful examples.

Video Transcript

Start with reading lists, references & footnotes

Check your subject reading lists for details of key primary and secondary sources your lecturers may expect you to read.

Check the footnotes and bibliographies of the books and articles you're reading for background information.

Activity & self-assessment

Where and how will you look for an historical overview or background information to help you better understand your broader topic area? You may like to practice your skills with our tutorial below.