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History senior thesis survival guide


Whatever your topic, you will want to begin by finding out what other historians have had to say about it. This web page presents some strategies for finding the scholarly literature on a topic in history, and some other tools that can help you decide what to read.

Finding books

Most historians publish their work in books. So, for many topics in history, your best starting point is a good recent scholarly book. The easiest way to find that book is to ask someone else who is knowledgeable about your topic -- for example, your junior seminar instructor or spring JP advisor. But a thorough search of the library catalog is also essential. Here are some tips on finding books about historical topics in the Princeton University Library Main Catalog.

  • Identify the Library of Congress Subject Heading for your topic, and use it in a subject search. You can look up LC Subject Headings in the big red books in the Trustee Reading Room (and elsewhere in the library). You can also look up a known book on your topic and check the long view for the subject headings assigned to that book.
  • Use the word "history" as part of a keyword search.
  • To find material about a person, an government agency, or an organization, search for it as a subject
  • To limit your search results to English-language materials, "Set Limits" before searching.
  • Didn't find enough? Expand your search in Worldcat to identify items not held by Princeton, then use Borrow Direct or Interlibrary loan to get the books you discover there.
  • Other sources for books include:

Assessing what you find -- is this book worth your time?

  • Who is the author? Is he/she associated with an academic institution?
  • Who is the publisher? Most good history books are published by academic presses, e.g. Princeton University Press or Oxford University Press.
  • When was the book published? Your first choice will probably be a book published in the last ten years or so, because a recent book will refer to all the previous work on your topic. But some older books are still very valuable, so do not worry if the most recent book you can find on your topic was published long ago.
  • Does the book include the scholarly apparatus that will enable you to verify the author's work? Look for footnotes or endnotes plus a bibliography. A book with no notes or bibliography will not be helpful to you at this stage of your research.

Once you have a book in hand, read it. Alas, there are no shortcuts to this part of the research process.

Finding journal articles

While books are very important, historians also publish their work in articles in academic journals. And the easiest way to find journal articles is to search a bibliographic database that covers your topic:

  • America: History and Life
    This database covers the history and culture of the United States and Canada from prehistory to the present. It indexes scholarly articles in books and journals published from 1954 to the present.
  • Historical Abstracts
    This database covers world history, except for the US& Canada, from 1450 to the present. The coverage includes abstracts of journal articles, books and dissertations from 1960 onwards.

A few pitfalls to watch out for:

  • Neither AHL nor HA covers ancient and medieval history. Please ask for help if you are working on a topic in those fields.
  • Besides databases for history, you may also need to consult databases for art, African-American Studies, law, literature, politics, or many other disciplines. Go to the Articles & Databases list on the library web page, and then use the "Subject" drop-down menu to select the databases for a particular field.