What is History and Historical Research?

Examples | Methodology | Student Resources | Glossary | Teacher Resources

Historical Research is a subcategory of Social Sciences Research.

  • Read the description and explore the various fields of historical research.
  • Study the examples to see what others have done.
  • Navigate through the Steps to plan your methodology.
  • Use the Student Resources to assist in carrying out your research.

According to the American Historical Association, history and its research is defined as the never-ending process whereby people seek to understand the past and its many meanings. The institutional and intellectual forms of history's dialogue with the past have changed enormously over time, but the dialogue itself has been part of the human experience for millennia. We all interpret and narrate the past, which is to say that we all participate in making history. It is among our most fundamental tools for understanding ourselves and the world around us. The main areas of historical study include:

    1. Period History:   often focuses on events and developments that occur in particular blocks of time.
    2. World History:  study of major civilizations over the last 3000 years or so.
    3. Regional History:  study of certain areas of the world over a period of time or focusing on a period of time.
    4. Military History:  concentrating on historical wars and warfare, including battles, military strategies and weaponry, including tribal.
    5. Social History:  study of how societies adapt and change over periods of time.
    6. Cultural History:  combines the approaches of anthropology and history to look at language, popular cultural traditions and cultural interpretations of historical experience.
    7. Diplomatic History:  focuses on politics, politicians and other high rulers and views them as being the driving force of continuity and change in history.
    8. Peoples History:  attempts to account for historical events from the perspective of common people.
    9. Gender History:  looks at the past from the perspective of gender and is, in many ways, an outgrowth of women's history.
    10. Historiography:  the study of the history and methodology of the discipline of history.

(View at home or see your teacher)

Interpreting history can be challenging, but not how you think.  History is challenging when reinterpreted as a result of new evidence or when viewed with a new set of eyes.  James Loewen, sociologist and author, is a leading questioner of what we have been taught as historical truth.  The video to the right is a clip from Loewen’s Keynote Address at the 2007 National Association of Interpretation workshop.

Consider what new perspectives or interpretations you could bring to a discipline that is more fluid than you thought.


posted on YouTube


Example of a student history research paper and bibliography from the Chicago History Fair 

Placed sixth in the nation at National History Day in 2003. It was written by Sam Bouman of St. Ignatius High School.

Winning history research paper and bibliography from National History Day, 2004

Stephen J. Frese, Marshalltown High School, Marshalltown, Iowa
Senior Division Historical Paper, National History Day 2004 Competition

Winning history documentary from National History Day, 2004

(View at home or see your teacher)

The Limited Warfare Strategy Debate: A Delicate Balance between Stalemate, Defeat, and a Nuclear Apocalypse

By Justin Hong, Vincent Kee, and Christopher Sheu

This documentary won the Documentary Division at the California Academy of
Mathematics and Science History Day. It was then entered in National History Day

Historians in Action

Gilder Lehman Since 1996, the Gilder Lehrman Institute has presented eminent historians discussing major topics in American history. Now you can hear these lectures on your computer or on a portable media player. Our archive of more than eighty podcasts is available for free, simply by registering and signing in below (Access at home or see teacher)
National Museum of American History

"History Explorer: Meet Our Museum" features NMAH staff members discussing their work and projects here at the museum. Accompanying this series are teacher guides, work sheets and images for classroom use. 


Before you get started, check out this powerpoint that breaks down the methodology involved in researching history.  Though written for students in Chicago and using the historical archives available in that city, the tools are applicable to Maryland's vast historical resources.

General Steps to Follow When Conducting Research in History

Step 1
Having developed your questions/problem/thesis, locate and identify multiple primary and secondary sources that are related to your question/problem/thesis.
Step 2

Historians do more than describe events. They analyze and interpret information gathered from their sources to draw conclusions about a topic's significance in history. Therefore, teachers should help students to ask questions of their topic and their research, considering the following: 

  • Elements of change and continuity
  • Historical context: economic, political, social and cultural atmosphere of the time period 

Interrogate and analyze your sources by asking them:: 

  • Who created the source? (accounting for bias and slant)
  • When was the source created? (placing the document in its historical context)
  • What was the intent or purpose of the source? (examining the point of view and multiple points of view, within)  
Step 3

Collect and organize the evidence, verify authenticity and veracity of information

  •  evaluate the sources
  •  discard or locate sources of information related to topic
Step 4
Select, organize and analyze the most pertinent collected evidence
  • Notetaking
  • Consider the so what/why/historical significance
Step 5
  • Draw conclusions (related to thesis/problem/question) and record in a narrative

Before you start visit these helpful sites below:

  • The History Major's Toolbox An interactive, web-based tutorial designed to develop competence skills applicable to history as a discipline and, from there, to identify the set of competencies necessary for successful CSU History Majors.
  • Primary Sources: Workshops in American History A short, video series that illustrates the methods used to interpret primary sources in order to draw conclusions about the past.  Produced by Annenburg, each video clip has accompanying materials and focuses on a specific era in American history.
student resources
A powerpoint from the website for the Chicago History Fair site providing a step-by-step guide to students becoming historians as they conduct research and present their findings in order to compete in the National History Day Fair.

Writing the History Paper

  • A brief guide to writing a history paper from Harvard University.
  • This handout will define what an argument is and explain why making an argument—expressing a point of view on a subject and supporting it with evidence—is often the aim of academic writing. 
  • This site provides a wide-ranging set of materials:  reading primary and secondary historical sources, the nature of historical arguments, the research process, structuring history papers, writing papers, working with sources, and editing and evaluating our own historical writing. 

Evaluating Sources 

  • This handout, from the University of North Carolina, will discuss strategies to evaluate secondary printed sources—books, journal articles, magazines, etc.—based on three criteria: objectivity, authority, and applicability to your particular assignment. 

Research Tutorial 

  • Internet for History is a free online tutorial to help university students develop their Internet research skills and learn how to make discerning use of the Internet to help find information for your coursework and assignments.
  • The Digital History Reader (DHR), United States History section, provides materials covering important themes and issues from the colonial era to the present designed for introductory-level survey courses at colleges and universities and for advanced history courses at the secondary level.  Perfect to build background knowledge and practice interpreting sources and building meaning.

Research Databases 

  • Making of America (MoA) is a digital library of primary sources in American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction. The collection is particularly strong in the subject areas of education, psychology, American history, sociology, religion, and science and technology. The collection currently contains approximately 10,000 books and 50,000 journal articles with 19th century imprints.
  • Best of History Web Sites is an award-winning portal that contains annotated links to over 1200 history web sites as well as links to hundreds of quality K-12 history lesson plans, history teacher guides, history activities, history games, history quizzes, and more. 
  • American Memory provides free and open access through the Internet to written and spoken words, sound recordings, still and moving images, prints, maps, and sheet music that document the American experience. It is a digital record of American history and creativity. These materials, from the collections of the Library of Congress and other institutions, chronicle historical events, people, places, and ideas that continue to shape America, serving the public as a resource for education and lifelong learning. 
  • The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the nation's record keeper. Of all documents and materials created in the course of business conducted by the United States Federal government, only 1%-3% are so important for legal or historical reasons that they are kept by us forever. 
  • The Avalon Project will mount digital documents relevant to the fields of Law, History, Economics, Politics, Diplomacy and Government. We do not intend to mount only static text but rather to add value to the text by linking to supporting documents expressly referred to in the body of the text.
  • An independent non-governmental research institute and library located at The George Washington University, the Archive collects and publishes declassified documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and serves as a repository of government records on a wide range of topics pertaining to the national security, foreign, intelligence, and economic policies of the United States.
  • The Maryland State Archives is the central repository for state government records of permanent value with a broad legal mandate to acquire and care for both public and private records relating to the history of Maryland from the earliest times of Lord Baltimore to the present.
  • The site contains, among other things, resource guides for 44 historical eras and topics. Each includes a historical overview, links to the relevant Digital History textbook chapters, bibliographies, classroom handouts, charts, chronologies, film guides, historic newspaper articles, primary source documents, lesson plans, historic maps, music, cartoons, quizzes, and images.  
  • The Gilder Lehrman Institute's website serves as a gateway to American history online with rich resources containing more than 60,000 documents detailing the political and social history of the United States and including manuscript letters, diaries, maps, photographs, printed books and pamphlets ranging from 1493 through modern times.


  • Annenberg Learning - High school history teachers explore the use of primary-source documents in the research and interpretation of American history. The programs feature informal lectures by prominent historians on pivotal events from the settlement of Jamestown to the Korean conflict and the Cold War.
  • Calvert County Public Schools website providing resources, powerpoints and examples of research for national history day.
  • The Research Essay -- Taking Notes 
  • The Internet History Sourcebooks Project [IHSP] is a world wide web project designed to provide easy access to primary sources and other teaching materials in a non-commercial environment.  It was developed and is edited by Paul Halsall with the aid of numerous other contributors.

The Historians Toolbox 

  • Primary Sources can be valuable teaching tools. These articles and other materials focus on the benefits of teaching with documents.
  • Explore the National Archives collection in the Digital Vaults. Exploring the Digital Vaults is easy. By putting visual records front and center—images of documents, photographs, and popular media—the Digital Vaults illustrates how records can come together in unexpected ways to tell the nation’s story. 
  • The History Guide has been created for the high school and undergraduate student who is either taking classes in history, or who intends to major in history in college and to better prepare yourself for your history classes and to make your time in class more enjoyable and proficient. 
  • These are short essays designed to help the beginning historian conduct and organize his or her own historical research. Essays marked with page include forms for you to print and use in your own research. 

Historical Organizations and Associations

  • The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History dedicates its collections and scholarship to inspiring a broader understanding of our nation and its many peoples. We create opportunities for learning, stimulate imaginations, and present challenging ideas about our country’s past.  The Museum collects and preserves more than 3 million artifacts—all true national treasures. 
  • The American Historical Association (AHA) is a nonprofit membership organization founded in 1884 and incorporated by Congress in 1889 for the promotion of historical studies, the collection and preservation of historical documents and artifacts, and the dissemination of historical research. 
  • The National Coalition for History (NCH) is a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit educational organization providing leadership in history-related advocacy, serving as the profession's national voice, and acting as a clearinghouse of news and information.
  • Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University has used digital media and computer technology to democratize history—to incorporate multiple voices, reach diverse audiences, and encourage popular participation in presenting and preserving the past. CHNM uses digital media and technology to preserve and present history online, transform scholarship across the humanities, and advance historical education and understanding.
  • The Maryland Historical Society serves the people of Maryland, and those interested in Maryland history, through stewardship of comprehensive library and museum collections that are central to the state’s history, by promoting scholarship through publications and by providing educational services at our own campus and throughout the state.
  • Listing from the Maryland state government site listing the county and local history archives available for research and study.. 


  • The American History Associations alphabetical listing of history journals 
  • The Historical Journal continues to publish papers on all aspects of British, European, and world history since the fifteenth century.
  • Welcome to the Journal of American History (JAH) online. Published four times a year, the JAH is the leading scholarly publication and the journal of record in American history. The JAH makes selected content freely available, including Web site reviews, the “Textbooks and Teaching” section, and the “Recent Scholarship” print listing.
  • The Organization of American Historians promotes excellence in the scholarship, teaching, and presentation of American history, and encourages wide discussion of historical questions and equitable treatment of all practitioners of history.  Their magazine is available on JSTOR, a small number of specific articles are available on-line or full access is available at a subscription fee.
  • A quarterly online history journal, History Now, featuring articles by historians, teacher lesson plans, interactive activities, and advice from the archivist from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
  • NARA's education office has been working in successful partnership with educators for more than 25
    years to promote the use of primary sources in the classroom, produce engaging and teachable document-based materials, and demonstrate active-learning techniques that bring documents to life for students at every level. Additional opportunities for collaboration in these areas with members of the historical community are welcome and sought. 
  • You are invited to introduce your staff and students to the power of primary sources through an videoconference from the National Archives and Records Administration!   The workshops are
    • interactive and document-based.
    • available for groups of up to 30 students in grades 5 - 12.
    • designed to last 1 hour, and can be scheduled on weekdays between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. (EST or EDT).
    • made possible through ISDN or IP-based videoconferencing systems.

Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct, Approved by Professional Division, December 9, 2004 and adopted by Council, January 6, 2005. This Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct addresses dilemmas and concerns about the practice of history that historians have regularly brought to the American Historical Association seeking guidance and counsel. Some of the most important sections of this Statement address questions about employment that vary according to the different institutional settings in which historians perform their work. Others address forms of professional misconduct that are especially troubling to historians. And some seek to identify a core set of shared values that professional historians strive to honor in the course of their work.

teacher resources