Reading and taking notes on primary and secondary sources:

If the distinction between primary and secondary sources is unfamiliar to you, please look at the more detailed explanation in the glossary on the history J300/J400 Resource Pages. (Everyone would do well to look over the other information available on this resource site. It will be a useful reference as you prepare your final research paper.)

The history J300/J400 website lays out several methods for organizing the many sources of information that go into a historical research paper, ranging from index cards to bibliographic software. You are welcome to choose whichever method seems most appropriate for your needs. If you are interested in bibliographic software, I recommend a shareware program called Zotero I have recently converted to this program after years of using the bibliographic program EndNote, which you can download for free as an IU Student. See the Indiana University Knowledgebase for instructions on how to do this. There are advantages and disadvantages to each of these programs, but both are extremely useful for tracking the multiple resources needed to produce a good historical research paper.

Regardless of the method you choose, you will want to end up with the equivalent of a master "index card" for most of the things you read. Please review these general strategies for interpreting primary sources. At a minimum, your notes should allow you to answer the following basic questions for each primary source:

  • Who wrote it?
  • When and where?
  • To what events does it refer?
  • Who were the main actors?
  • What was the author's relationship to these actors and events? Why is s/he writing about them?
  • Who was the intended audience?
  • What seem to be key terms and concepts?

For secondary sources, there are useful guidelines for "How to Read a Source" on the J300/J400 Resource Page. In general your notes on secondary sources should aim to include the following:

  • citation information
  • the period covered by the reading
  • the kinds of sources used
  • Quotations of and/or a restatement of the articles’ the main question(s) and argument.
  • Two or three examples of key points & the evidence that supports them.
  • Questions you have about the article. These can be points needing clarification, or things that connect it to other readings.
  • If you are reading a book, look at what other scholars have said about in their reviews.