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4.6 The Research Essay -- How to Choose the Right Books

Hopefully you've now got the idea that the study of history means reading and in my humble opinion, reading makes you more knowledgeable about a specific topic. Wiser too! History is a reading subject. You can't sit in an empty room and write history. You must have evidence. You must have facts. You must have interpretations. So where does all this come from? And how do you choose your books wisely?

My own habit, when confronted with a research essay, was to head off to the library and find as many books as I could about the topic at hand. As a graduate student with unlimited borrowing privileges I used to use a cart to carry all the books I borrowed on any given day. In other words, I wouldn't think twice of borrowing fifty books at a time. The librarians usually moaned and groaned but I did have the right to borrow all those books, and more. Not only that, as a graduate student I could keep those books decidedly longer than the undergraduate. Of course, this is graduate school stuff.

Research for undergraduate classes in history (or even high school classes) obviously entails much less. But all this still begs the question: how do you pick and choose the "right" books?

Here's my advice. Go to the library armed with your index cards and start digging. Spend an hour or two at the terminal or improve your physical health by consulting the hard copy card catalogs. Write down all likely sources in your notebook, even those which seem remotely useful. (Keep your index cards handy. You don't want to start writing down information until you have the book in your hands and open to the title and copyright pages.) You should begin to notice that titles are beginning to appear in clusters according to their call number and location in the stacks. In fact, as a graduate student studying modern British history, I sometimes went straight to the stacks because I knew the majority of titles pertaining to British History were located in the "DA" stacks, specifically "DA20-690." If it's Russia, head over to "DK." It's that simple. You will soon get to know just what your library has in its holdings. By the way, if your library still uses the older, Dewey Decimal system, you'll find all the history stuff in the 900-990 range.

Another aid in finding resources is to consult any one of the many guides to reference books which you will find in the Reference Section of your library. These guides will give you brief descriptions of all the reference sources available in the Reference Section, including abstracts and indexes. Here's a few of the more popular ones:

  • Eugene P. Sheehy, Guide to Reference Books

  • Helen J. Poulton, The Historian's Handbook: A Descriptive Guide to Reference Works

  • Elizabeth Frick, Library Research Guide to History

  • Carla Stoff and Simon Karter, Materials and Methods for History Research

There are so many resources located in the Reference Section of your library that I would need several pages to describe those of use just to historians. Rather than spend the time describing these resources, here's what you do. Go to the library and spend at least two hours in the Reference Section seeing exactly what is available. You'll be glad you did.

Well, with all this behind us, how do we choose what it is we should read? How do we choose the "right" books? Well, technically, there is no such thing as a wrong book. But, there are books which will help you more than others. Here's a simple example. In your research on William Godwin, you come across two titles seemingly about the same thing. On the one hand, there is Peter H. Marshall's William Godwin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984). On the other hand, Ford K. Brown's The Life of William Godwin (London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1926). You should have noticed right away that the two books were written nearly sixty years apart. Now if, as an undergraduate, I were writing a research essay on Godwin and needed only a dozen sources or so, then I would choose the volume by Marshall. Why? Because there's an excellent chance that Marshall is already familiar with any arguments that may have appeared in Brown's book. So, why waste your time reading Brown when Marshall has perhaps already done the work for you? Of course, if this were a graduate school seminar essay or thesis, both texts would have to have been consulted.

I must admit here that as an undergraduate and graduate student it was my habit to read everything, or at the very least, as much as I could in the amount of time given. In other words, I have always had a tendency to over-read (as well as over-research) a subject. Why did I do this? Well, to my way of thinking, the more you read about one topic, the more you become familiar with common names, events, people, places, ideas and so on. I bombarded myself with information and after a while, things just begin to sink in. The other tactic would be to carefully read just a few books and "study" them. Whichever technique you choose is entirely up to you. I happen to be a fast reader so I chose the former technique. Reading may not come easy to you or perhaps you don't have enough time to read everything. You will have to adjust your research habits accordingly.

What you need to read will, of course, be determined by the subject matter. In the case of the Godwin example I have used throughout this section, there is a wealth of information available. But not nearly so much as might be available on, say, Hitler or the Nazis, for example. Just to put this into perspective, in the Forward to The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990), William Shirer mentions that 485 tons of records of the German Foreign Office were captured by the U.S. First Army in the Harz Mountains just as they were about to be burned on orders from Berlin. 485 tons! And those are just the records of the German Foreign Office! No wonder so much has been written about Hitler, the Nazis and World War Two.

Since you don't have the time to read everything, you should be able to determine whether a book may be of use to you by following these guidelines:

  • Try to locate books that match your topic exactly

  • Once you have these books in hand, locate those titles which pertain to the topic in general. Glance at the Table of Contents and Index. Are there direct references to your topic? Is a chapter devoted to your subject? or just a page? Or worse, just a footnote?

  • If there is a bibliography (and there almost always is) go through the entire thing and see if you can locate other books which might help you.

  • When was the book published? Obviously, if your topic is something like slavery in American society, a book published in say, 1934, is going to give you a different approach than one written in 1894 or 1964 or 1996. (Ask yourself why.)

  • Read the Preface or, if it isn't too lengthy, the Introduction.

  • If a book is consistently cited in the literature about your topic, then it's a good bet that you should be familiar with it as well.

Determining the number of books you ought to use to conduct your research is a judgment call and really depends on the topic you have selected. If you have selected a topic for which very little secondary literature exists then you will more than likely need to master it all. However, if confronted with the tonnage of materials indicative of World War Two scholarship, then you are going to have to refine your topic considerably. Your professor ought to give you some idea of the kind of research he expects and if he doesn't, then it is up to you to ask. You can't read everything in such a short period of time as one semester, so you must learn to choose carefully and avoid texts which duplicate stuff you've read elsewhere. That's why it's usually a good idea to read more recent works of historical scholarship since the author has already done some of the research for you.

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