Following the Secondary Source Trail PDF Print E-mail

First steps to locating key secondary sources:

  1. Check reference works, such as the Encyclopedia of Chicago or Women Building Chicago. Often, key sources are offered by the authors at the end of the entry.
    secondary source
    women building chicago cover

    journal of american history

    For example, a student doing a project on changing attitudes to the German community might read the Encyclopedia of Chicago entry on World War I; at the end, the entry suggests the researcher read "The Great War Sinks German Kultur" in Ethnic Chicago.
  2. Use the bibliographies and citations provided in a scholar's book. They will list the collections of archival materials used, important secondary sources, and specific dates for newspaper articles that have not been indexed.
    Continuing the example, above, in reading the "The Great War Sinks German Kultur" article, a student should turn to the primary and secondary sources cited in the bibliography and find those that seem most important for their topic.
  3. Look for specialized bibliographies or indices on particular subjects such as The Haymarket Affair: An Annotated Bibliography by Robert Glenn or Bibliography of African American Family History by David Thackery. The Index to Chicago History magazine (annual and cumulative) is an essential tool for History Fair students and other subject-specific indices, such as the Burnham Index to Architectural Literature or the Chicago Afro-American Union Analytic Catalog are invaluable. Ask the reference librarian to help you!
  4. Be patient in doing library catalog searches: prioritize books published by university presses. Use the links under the subjects of books found particularly helpful to find potentially more of the same. When doing keyword searches, remember to try various versions of the words (such as movies-motion pictures; black-Afro-American). Ask a library to show you how to use the Library of Congress Subject Headings too.

Go to the research resources historians use to find important journal articles and reviews.

  1. America, History and Life
  2. Databases: J-Store and History Cooperative (available at university libraries) and microfiches/microfilm to find articles and reviews from such scholarly publications as Journal of American History, Journal of Ethnic History, Labor History, or Business History Review.
  3. Social Sciences Index
  4. American Historical Association's Guide to Historical Literature edited by Mary Beth Norton contains over 27,000 annotated entries.
  5. Reviews in American History
  6. Dissertations and Masters Theses on topics in Chicago history may be found at local universities. America, History and Life and indices to dissertations can be used to locate them and given enough time, students may borrow copies through interlibrary loan. Both CPL and CHS have purchased a number of dissertations that are especially important to Chicago historians.
  7. Readers Guide to Periodical Literature can help locate non-scholarly articles on a historical topic. (Since it published throughout the 20th century, it is also a rich source for primary sources too.)
  8. Scholars and experts may be available for interviews, but students should seek them out with specific questions related to their work or the argument the student is developing rather than general questions that could be answered through other sources.

How to "read" a secondary source

Few historians have time to read every word of a book. Because they need to find out pretty quickly if the source is relevant to their own work, they preview a source to determine if it will be helpful. They also pick out the argument and the central claims and evidence offered in the work, and summarize the work in their own words. Like primary sources, secondary sources should be analyzed for perspective, purpose, audience, context, and authority.

Analyzing a Secondary Source


Step One

What? When? Who?

Step Two

Figuring Out the Story: Information Gathering

Step Three

A "Conversation" with


In the beginning stages of your research, you are trying to find out what happened and when, who the key people are, what important events happened, etc. At this stage in your research, you might still be determining the exact focus of your research and narrowing your topic.

In the middle stages of your research, you will begin to understand your topic in more depth. By now, you go beyond what happened and when and begin to ask questions like why? how? what was the impact? what was the context? You have a working thesis.

When you reach the advanced stages of historical research, you seek to understand the important issues, themes, questions, and debates that historians have about this subject and its significance in history so that you can offer your own interpretation.


•  Encyclopedias (general and specialized, esp. historical)
•  Textbooks

•  General books on your topic
•  Historical books accessible to general public
•  Popular history magazines and basic periodicals
•  Biographies
•  Text in museum exhibit
•  Documentaries

•  Scholarly books and dissertations
•  Scholarly articles
•  Interviews with scholars and other experts


•  What happened?
•  When?
•  Who are the key people involved?
•  What's happening around the same time that might help you understand why things happened as they did?
•  What are the keywords that will lead you to other sources?

•  Why did these events happen?
•  What are the causes and effects?
•  What were the various motivations, perspectives, and concerns of the people involved?
•  How does this story fit into the big picture?

•  What key questions do historians have about this topic in history?
•  What do you think matters about this topic? What story are you going to tell?
•  What are the core issues and themes one must understand to make sense of this subject?
•  Why does this topic matter?
•  What is the long-term historical significance of this topic?

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