IAS 45: Survey of World History

Guide to writing history papers

The Research Process

Choose a topic.  It's OK if it's vague, or too broad; you can get more specific later.

Do a brain dump: Note down what you already know about your topic, including:

  • Names of people, organizations, companies, time period you are interested in, places of interest (countries, regions, cities, etc.)

Fill in the gaps in your knowlege: get background information from encyclopedias (online or in print) or other secondary sources.  Wikipedia can be good here.

Select the best search tools to find information on your topicLook under the Finding Articles tab of this guide for article database suggestions, or click here to see all the article databases available for your subject.  Or use a catalog like Oskicat or Melvyl to search for books and other resources.

Use nouns from your brain dump as search terms.

Evaluate what you find.  Change search terms to get closer to what you really want.

Refine your topic - Using the information you have gathered, determine if your research topic should be narrower or broader. You may need to search basic resources again using your new, focused topics and keywords. 

For more ideas, take a look this short tutorial on beginning your research!

How to Narrow Your Topic

"I'm writing a paper on World War II." 

Often students start their research with a very general topic, even though they may realize the topic is too large to deal with in a 10-15 page paper.  Faculty and librarians tell them, "You have to narrow this down."  But how do you narrow a topic?

Ask yourself--

  • What discipline am I working in?  If you are in a sociology class, ask a sociological question about World War II, like "How did WWII affect women?"  If it's a political science class, your question might be something like "How did WWII affect presidential elections in the US?"
  • What are some subsets or aspects of your topic.  Some good aspects are:
    • by place, such as a country or region
    • by time period, such as a century, decade or year 
    • by population, such as men, women, ethnic group, youth, children or elderly

You can combine these ideas, "What were the major impacts of WWII on women in France, in the decade after the war?"

More ideas in our brief tutorial on topic selection and narrowing. 

Library Workshop: Research 101

Unsure how to start a paper or research project? Think maybe you could stand to brush up ostudent with laptopn search strategies?

If this sounds familiar, Library Workshop: Research 101 has you covered. This interactive tutorial explores six stages of the research process. You can view it from start to finish, or focus on specific sections as needed:

1: Begin Your Research

Starting strategies, from choosing a topic to finding the right keywords.

2: Knowledge Cycle

The publication timeline, scholarly vs. popular sources, and differences in academic disciplines.

3: Finding Books

Search for books and other items in OskiCat, Cal's local library catalog.

4: Finding Articles

Locate and access articles in library research databases.

5: Make Citations

How to cite your sources correctly.

6: Basic Search

Common techniques for constructing searches that yield useful results.

7: Advanced Search

Specialized search strategies for targeting specific topics.

Last Update: February 18, 2014 08:56