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*History: Interpreting Secondary Sources: Reading Secondary Sources

Can You Judge a Book by Its Cover?


You can learn a lot from a paperback book's back cover.

Many publishers include a brief summary of the book on the back cover.

Look also for blurbs. What you want to see are blurbs (short statements of praise) from distinguished scholars. Usually the blurber's university or institution is listed with their name. As you become a more sophisticated historian, you may recognize scholars' names.

Finally, look for the author's own credentials. Is s/he a professor? A journalist? Have they written other books? (If so, might those books be useful to you as well?)

The Parts of an Article

A history article generally includes these components:

  • Introduction
    • Thesis statement
    • Evidence to be used
  • Body
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Bibliography

Pay particular attention to the introduction, which lays out the article's thesis, or argument, and the kinds of evidence (that is, primary sources) the author will use to support that argument.

Look carefully at the references and bibliography (if one is included) to find other sources that may be relevant to your research.

Tip: Understanding how an article is structured will help you think about structuring your own paper.

The Parts of a Book

Typically a book will contain these components.

  • Introduction 
    • Thesis statement
    • Evidence to be used
    • Chapter summaries (sometimes)
  • Body (chapters)
  • Conclusion
  • References (can be footnotes or endnotes)
  • Bibliography (sometimes)
  • Index

As with an article, pay special attention to the introduction, which lays out the book's overall thesis and the kinds of primary sources the author will use to support that argument.

Each chapter of a book will have its own argument, which will support the book's larger argument.

The table of contents will help you determine if some chapters are more useful to you than others. Tip: It can help to think of a book as a collection of articles, all supporting the larger argument of the whole book.

Check the index for your topic (and any related keywords you've thought of) see how heavily the book focuses on that topic.

Look carefully at the references and bibliography (if one is included) to find other sources that may be relevant to your research.

Writing and Reading

Many of the tips you hear about writing a paper apply to reading an article or book.

"Write clear topic sentences for each paragraph and support them with evidence in the paragraph."

translates into

"Look for topic sentences followed by evidence supporting them."


"In your introduction, develop a clear thesis statement and indicate what evidence you will use to support it."

translates into

"Look for the author's thesis statement and information about evidence used in the introduction."

What other writing tips can you turn into reading tips?

Is There an Electronic Version of That Book?

Is there an electronic copy of the book available? If the book you are looking for is still under copyright, you will likely find just a snippet view in these sources.

A snippet view can still be useful: check for a table of contents, index, chapter titles, etc. to help you assess whether the book is relevant to your research. This can help determine whether you want to find a hard copy of the book.