Historical Methods & Theory

For students in class HIST-290, or anyone who wants an overview of how to study historical methods

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Kate Flower

"Balancing" the History Scales

Each historian brings a unique perspective to whatever is being studied. How a historian interprets information can depend on what information is available to the historian at the time. In addition, a historian’s past and present can influence what questions they will ask about a topic being studied. All historians can bring unique perspectives to subject matter.

History Scholarship vs. History Propogands



  • Presents accurate descriptions of alternative views
  • Makes personal attacks/ridicules
  • Updates information
  • Appeals to popular prejudices
  • Finds own field/area of investigation difficult and full of holes
  • Transforms words to suit aims
  • Relies on critical thinking skills
  • Magnifies or minimizes problems to suit purpose; presents information/views out of context

Primary Sources

primary source is first hand evidence. It was there at the time of an event.

primary source is contemporary to the period being studied.

Examples of primary sources are: speeches, letters, comics/cartoons, songs, legislation, court decisions, journals/diaries, interviews, artifacts, autobiographies, statistics, experiments, and photographs.

Secondary Sources

cover imageA secondary source is a book or article written about an event or topic, based on primary sources.

Secondary sources interpret original documents and give you background information about the topic you want to research.

Examples of secondary sources are: articles, dictionaries, encyclopedias, textbooks and books that interpret or review research works.

Grey Area Sources

Sometimes secondary sources can become primary sources. It all depends on how you are using the source.

If you use the source as supporting material for your argument and you are not interpreting the author's intentions or societal influences, it is a secondary source. However, if you use the source as an example for your argument and are interpreting the material, it is a primary source.

For example, if you are doing research on the current economic crisis and you are using newspaper articles to cite what the situation is (such as the banks declaring bankruptcy, unemployment, etc.), the articles are secondary sources. On the other hand, if you are doing research on the economic crisis in the 1930s and discussing the climate of the time, the articles become primary sources.

Common grey areas of historic research include:

  • Newspapers/Magazines
  • Encyclopedias
  • History Texts

All materials from: Historiography: Ramapo College,  https://libguides.ramapo.edu/HIST201rice