History Senior Thesis

Welcome to the research guide for your history senior thesis

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The research guide has been made in collaboration with your thesis advisors. Selected electronic resources are linked here and from the library home page. You may check the location and the availability of an item in our collection through the online catalog, accessible from the library home page.

Professional library assistance will be invaluable to you during this process and is available on campus, by phone at 540-441-8400, or by email at askalibrarian@phc.edu. Checking in with a librarian as you begin your research and will save you time and frustration.

Thesis Essentials

  • Develop a plan before plunging into acquiring information on your subject. Without a plan, you may become disoriented and overwhelmed. Formulate a hypothesis, a tentative research question and answer. Then collect information that will give you an overview of the subject. You will probably revise the hypothesis several times during the research process.

  • Primary source documents are your main sources of information. Researching in primary source documents is a two-step process: find facts and then find a persuasive way to explain those facts so that they are meaningful. Secondary sources are used to establish a context and fill in missing facts.

  • Meet with your advisor early and often, particularly in the first two months. Talk through your ideas, guesses, problems.

  • The best research model: Research only enough until you can write a bear skeleton of your topic and then write that skeleton. Once the skeleton is completed begin to research the unanswered questions and translate those into your findings and into the project. More questions will be exposed; research them and then write in more revisions. In sum: research... then write...then research more... then write more... then research again... then write again. You will be surprised at how much easier it is when you have a plan.

To begin your research

  • Use general knowledge sources, such as subject specific encyclopedias to get an overview of your topic and its historical context.

  • Identify important persons, events and dates essential to your topic.

  • Identify organizations, governments, and/or institutions related to your topic.

  • Utilize the PHC catalog.  Although the collection may not have the depth and breadth required for all of your research needs, the collection may provide enough primary and secondary source documents to aid you in gaining an overview of your topic.

  • Determine the specific Library of Congress (LOC) uniform vocabulary, subject headings for your topic to ensure that you are gathering all of the pertinent information on that subject. For instance, when searching for information on Germany in WWII, a keyword search may not retrieve all potential sources. Doing a subject search with the uniform subject heading "World War, 1939-1945--Germany".  will retrieve all potential sources in the catalog that are specific to your topic.  More specifically you may want to study German spies in WWI with LOC headings "World War, 1939-1945--Secret service--Germany". 

  • Check the bibliography of books and articles to find additional helpful resources.

  • Zotero is a free citation management system that will help you collect and organize your resources and then seamlessly create footnotes, endnotes, in-text citations, and bibliographies. Enter the ISBN number of the book or other identifying information and it will enter all the information needed for your citations in the citation style you request. You can download and watch online tutorials, but you may benefit from a librarian’s help in quickly learning how to use Zotero.

What is a primary source?

Primary source documents are items that were either created at the time an event took place OR were created at a later date by a person who witnessed the event or the time period. These first hand observations by event witnesses allow the researcher to view the event through the eyes of the participants and examine it within its cultural context.
Primary source documents include:

  • Diaries, journals, letters, personal papers, and memos written by the historical witness

  • Autobiographies and memoirs are personal reflections of the witness, but written at a later date. Note: These items may also exhibit distortion created by personal bias or poor memory

  • Audio recordings of interviews with historical witnesses, such as interviews with Americans who were former slaves, is available at Library of Congress: American Memory or holocaust survivors at Voices

  • Government documents, such as census records, marriage, birth and death records, research data, statistics, congressional records, etc.

  • Personal photographs, audio and/or video recordings

  • Newspaper articles, magazine articles, news photographs, or video that documents the event or time period

Primary sources may be available in a variety of formats, including the original document, a digital or microform copy, or a printed copy. Primary source research may be conducted by physically visiting an archive or government repository and handling the primary source documents with your hands, but much primary source research can be conducted via the Internet. Many archives have digitized their holdings and make them available online. One example is Miller Center's Presidential Recordings which provides access to over 5,000 hours of recordings of meetings and phone conversations of 6 presidents from 1940 to 1973. Additionally, many primary source documents have been digitized such as U S history's Avalon.org or European history's Eurodocs
Primary source research may also be conducted by obtaining microfilm or microfiche from archives. Many repositories scan their entire holdings and make them available via these formats. One example is HERE where you can click on the GO TO MICROFILM CATALOG.

What is a secondary source?

A secondary source document is an item that analyzes or interprets an event or time period. Generally the creator is at least one step removed from the event or time period. However, it is often based on primary source documents. When evaluating secondary source documents, researchers should note such issues as how much of the work is based on primary source documents and the quality of those documents. An analysis based on a previous analysis would not be a secondary source document.

May I suggest that you make an appointment with the friendly librarian?

The librarians will be an invaluable source of information on items within the PHC collection and items that can be obtained from other libraries. The more the librarians understand your thesis statement and your research direction, the more specific and tailored their help can be. Professional library assistance is available on campus, by phone at 540-441-8400, or by email at askalibrarian@phc.edu . Research appointments are suggested.

Created: Dr. Robert Spinney/Thornhill, 2013. Reviewed and updated: Dr. Douglas Favelo/Spinney/Thornhill, 2020. Last update: Thornhill, 2022. 

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