How to Research a History Paper

Instructing students how to structure their essays is relatively easy. Essays should generally follow some fairly well established rules. The form is not as rigid as the sonnet or the haiku, but it does exist, and it is usually an achievement, not an embarrassment, to stay within it. Research, in contrast, must be messy. Every research paper is a unique experience for which there can be no hard and fast rules. In fact, I would suggest, the key to a good research paper is the successful management of bewilderment. I cannot guide you to bewilderment, but I can provide some hints on how to find it.

The first step in managing bewilderment is knowing what to look for. I suggest that you seek a mood, a moment of confusion. As Isaac Asimov may have written, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ”Eureka!” (”I found it!”) but rather ”hmm. . . that”s funny. . . .”” At some point in your research, early or late, you should read something that makes perfect sense on its own yet clashes with something else you previously thought made perfect sense. Whether you leap from your chair and shout incomprehensible half-sentences at your roommate, or simply furrow your brow, at some point you should hit a fact or pattern that is noticeably more interesting than other things you have learned, for the simple reason that it does not fit with what you thought you knew. From there, the writing of the essay is merely a matter of stating the problem that confounded you and then explaining how you got out of it.

Some researchers begin their projects confused as a result of personal experience. David Halberstam, for example, writes that when he began the work that became The Best and the Brightest he was trying to understand “what was it about the men, their attitudes, the country, its institutions and above all the era which allowed this tragedy to take place?” Having spent seven years covering American involvement in Vietnam, he began his work admirably befuddled. David Nye dates his interest in electricity back to childhood observations of the differences between his electrified suburban home and the quieter life on his grandparents” nonelectrified farm. For Nye, childhood wonder fermented into historian”s curiosity.1

It is not, however, necessary to begin one”s project confused, for libraries and archives are rich reservoirs of bewilderment, especially as one taps the primary sources. Secondary sources, especially newspaper stories and reference works, are dangerous, for they are designed to project false certainty. They can, however, supply some bewilderment if, for example, you find arguments by two or more historians who disagree with each other. Primary sources, sources not written with the researcher in mind, are generally better at leading researchers profitably astray. Take Rachel Maines. While reading crumbling issues of turn-of-the-century needlework magazines she kept noticing advertisements for electric vibrators. Puzzled by the early and public appearance of now-taboo devices, she turned that puzzlement into a splendid book, The Technology of Orgasm. Charles Beard read original documents by the framers of the Constitution and received, in his words, “the shock of my life.”2

Once achieved, bewilderment must be managed, and I have some suggestions for keeping your confusion under control and your paper on schedule. First, try to answer your question with a narrow set of primary sources. For a 10-12 page term paper, a cubic foot or less of interesting primary materials may well suffice. I”ve read very successful papers based on a single magazine column, tracked over the course of two decades, or a pair of interviews with the owners of two very different Chinese restaurants. I do not want to discourage you from asking big questions, but big questions can be answered with small samples.

Chronology helps as well. It can rule out some causal chains; for example, it is clear that the decision to execute the Rosenbergs in 1953 was not a product of hysteria over Sputnik, launched in 1957. And a pair of dates can bracket your search for causes. If you find that John Calhoun supported expansive federal power in 1817 and rejected it in 1828, you know that something happened in the interval to make him change his mind.

The most important technique is to write as you research. Software engineers keep track of their progress with something called a daily build, a rough draft of a program under development. Each day the engineers add to it whatever new enhancements they”ve devised, watching anxiously to find if the build still runs. The historian”s equivalent is a working draft. As soon as you have even a vague idea of what your paper will look like, even if it”s only a three-line outline, write a draft. As you research, plug the fruits of your labor into the draft and see if it still makes sense, if it still runs. (Asking a friend to read it is one way to find out.) If it does, you may be on the right track, or you may not be confused enough. If something crashes–a sentence seems to belong in more than one section, or two sentences in the same section contradict each other–you may have tapped a new well of confusion. You may need to rewrite your thesis to take account of the new material. On the other hand, when you have worked through a few points of bewilderment and every new piece of evidence fits your argument, it is time to stop researching and to polish your paper into its final form.

In short, your research must follow the itinerary of Bilbo Baggins: there and back again. The farther you wander into the wilderness, the more perilous the paradoxes and the more fearful the inconsistencies, the more impressed your reader will be. Assuming, of course, that you make it back alive.

1David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (Greenwich, Conn. : Fawcett Publications, 1972); David E. Nye, Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940 (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990), xiii. .

2Rachel P. Maines, The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women”s Sexual Satisfaction (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), x-xi; Charles Austin Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1935; reprint, New York: Free Press, 1986), xliii.