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*History: Interpreting Secondary Sources: Home

Finding Secondary Sources

Questions about how to find secondary books and articles?

Check out our general History guide.

Creative Commons licensed image by Flickr user dumbledad.


Keep in mind that at some point (sooner rather than later!) you just have to sit down and read the secondary sources you've found.

Good secondary sources will lead you to other sources, both primary and secondary!

Reading Like a Historian

What Is a Secondary Source?

A secondary source is a source (usually a book, an article, or a paper) written by a scholar, based on the interpretation of primary sources and other relevant secondary sources.

What does a secondary source do?

  • Provides background and context
  • Points you toward other relevant secondary sources
  • Points you toward primary sources: intellectual honesty requires scholars to "show their work" and cite primary sources used
  • Can serve as model for your own writing

When you write a research paper, you are creating a secondary source!

Books and Articles: What's the Difference?


  • Broad topic or time period
  • More specific topics are usually treated in depth and often in relation to other related topics
  • Tip: find a general book on your topic and then look at the index, table of contents, and introduction to assess whether it will be useful for your specific paper.


  • Shorter and more tightly focused on a specific topic
  • Tip: since your research paper will be similar to an article, pay attention to how it's written and structured. A good article can be a model for your own writing. 

Always look at the footnotes or endnotes of a useful source, to find other useful sources!

See the Using Footnotes/Endnotes tab above for more information.

What Is Historiography?

Historiography is "the history of History as a discipline, or the specific discourse on a particular subject as it has unfolded over time." (Jim Cullen, Essaying the Past: How to Read, Write, and Think about History [New York: Wiley & Blackwell, 2009], p. 178; for a more detailed discussion, see chapter 2 of Cullen)

Most introductions (books, articles, research papers) will include a historiography section, demonstrating the author's knowledge of the answers to these questions:

  • What research has already been done on this topic?
  • How have scholars talked about this topic?
  • What are the major issues involved in studying or writing about this topic?

When you read a book or article related to your topic, pay attention to the historiography section. Often it will include references/footnotes citing relevant secondary sources—which will help you learn the historiography for your topic.

Why do I need to do this?

Scholarship is a conversation between scholars writing on the same topics. Sometimes you agree with other scholars, sometimes you disagree, sometimes something written by another scholar will send you off in a new and unexpected direction. Understanding these conversations also provides you with much-needed background information for your paper.

Intellectual honesty requires that you acknowledge this information, and these influences by

  • Demonstrating in your writing your understanding of these other scholars' work
  • Citing that work properly

Useful Websites