Researching historical topics can be daunting. How do you know where to look for historical documents? How do you know if the sources you found are adequate or reliable?
Identify the author’s background/perspective and understanding the purpose of their writing. If the author is writing to explain their ideas of government or politics, they most likely have a bias in one direction or the other. Once you discover the direction the author is slanted, you can decide if that document would work for your research.
When considering the date for historical documents, you should first remind yourself of the time period that you are studying. If you are choosing between researching Ancient Egypt or George Washington, you will likely find more historical documents for the second option since it is a recent topic. If you have an older topic, it’s okay if you do not find as many sources!
Once you come to grips with the variety/amount of historical documents you can find, then you can consider the date of specific documents that you discover. Is it close to the time of your essay topic, or is it decades or centuries after? The closer the document is to the time period that you are researching, the more accurate it probably is.
If the author wrote in a place close to the area that you are researching, then the document is more likely to be reliable. For example, if you are researching the French Revolution, you want to consider documents that were written in European countries affected by the event, including France, England, Prussia, etc. You would not want a South American or Asian document because, odds are, that writer would not be as familiar with the events that occurred in France.
Make sure to judge the source or website where you found your historical document.
If you find a website with statistics that pertain to your topic, decide if the website is reliable or not (because you don’t want to accidentally use inaccurate data). If the website is a government, educational (collegiate), or scholarly source, then you can be reassured of its accuracy!
If you are not sure what the document is saying, seek out someone who might be familiar with the content area. People like history professors would be perfect because their expertise is actually in the field that you are researching. If you still cannot understand the document, then you should probably discard it and find one that better relates to your research topic.
Many government bodies provide helpful worksheets to make sure that you are answering the important questions:
Colleges and universities offer tips and practice for analyzing historical documents: