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Material to help students do research

Using a research facility

Books/computers in library

Research facilities can include libraries, historical societies, museums, archives, newspaper offices, businesses, government offices, places of worship, and civic and service organizations.

Call or write first!

It is good practice to contact research facilities in advance via letter or telephone. This will allow personnel to prepare for your visit and will save time.

To find general resources in libraries

  • Search entries that pertain to your subject in a library card or computer catalog.
  • Browse through Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature or America, History and Life looking at subject headings.
  • Look at reference books including encyclopedias, bibliographies, and chronologies (timelines).
  • Ask a librarian to help you locate specific catalogs and bibliographies, government publications, manuscript and archives guides, indexes to masters theses, doctoral dissertations, and scholarly journals, guides to reference books, and internet resources.
  • Ask a librarian about the availability of interlibrary loan or internet computer search capabilities for specific titles or topics.

To find specific resources

  • If your topic involves a local subject, contact local historical societies and museums, archives, newspaper offices, businesses, government offices, places of worship, and civic or service organizations about the use of relevant records. Some libraries also hold special document collections of local and state significance.
  • For information relating to Indiana history and government, contact the Indiana State Library (Reference Division, Indiana Division, Genealogy); the Indiana State Archives (state government records); and the Indiana Historical Society (the William Henry Smith Library).
  • For national and international information, contact nearby university and college libraries which often have expanded reference capabilities and many of which, along with the Indiana State Library, are depository libraries for federal publications.
  • If you have a specific request, write or call the National Archives, the Library of Congress, or appropriate Presidential Libraries. Also locate specialized facilities, such as the Calumet Regional Archives at Indiana University Northwest in Gary (which collects materials specifically about the Calumet Region in Indiana), the Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne (one of the best collections of Lincoln materials available), or the Christian Theological Seminary Library in Indianapolis.

For more information

  • Gates, Jean Key. Guide to the Use of Libraries and Information Sources. 7th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994.
  • McCormick, Mona. New York Times Guide to Reference Materials. Revised edition. New York: Dorset Press, 1988.

Taking notes and preparing a bibliography

Index card for noting research information

You must record the sources of the information that you use--both primary and secondary--including photographs, illustrations, oral histories, and documentary films or videotapes. These sources and their respective notes provide the content for a bibliography. Briefly, a bibliography is a list of sources used to prepare a research paper or project.

Record your sources

  • Use cards or sheets of paper, but always use the same size--the bibliography will be much easier to keep orderly. Many scholars store this information in a computer database.
  • Information on each source should be recorded as one entry and contain: the author(s) or editor(s), title, place and date of publication, publisher, volume number, edition, and relevant pages, depending on the type of source. It is good practice to include the location and call number of the source so you can check your work more easily. See Turabian or Gibaldi for appropriate record format for all types of resources.
  • As you investigate a source, primary or secondary, you should note on the card, sheet, or in the database the source's usefulness, accuracy, point of view, etc.
  • Use the preceding information when you prepare your bibliography. Consistently follow an appropriate style guide for listing sources.

Research your topic

  • As you read and analyze your sources, the notes that you take become the building blocks of your product. Be neat and careful, and double check all information; it will save you time and trouble later.
  • Cards or sheets of paper may be used for notes or enter data directly into a computer; be consistent so that notes will be easy to find, identify, and organize.
  • Put only one idea on each card, sheet, or database entry.
  • Most importantly, on every card, sheet, or database entry identify the source of the information as specifically as possible.
  • Develop a standard method of recording information. Be consistent.
  • Remember to clearly distinguish between direct quotations and ideas so they can be properly used and credited at a later time.
  • The selection of information should involve analysis--is it accurate? what is the point of view? how does it relate to the topic?

For more information

  • Gibaldi, Joseph. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1997.
  • Kyvig, David E., and Myron A. Marty. Nearby History: Exploring the Past Around You. Reprint edition. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press, 1996.
  • Turabian, Kate L. Student's Guide for Writing College Papers. Sixth edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Using documents in historical research

Historical document


  • What type of document is it--letter, court record, diary, newspaper, broadside, government record, etc.?
  • What was the origin of the document?
  • Why was the document created?
  • Can the author be identified?
  • When was the document created?
  • For what audience was the document created?


  • Read the document through the first time to get a general idea of the content. Find the meanings for unknown words or symbols.
  • Now read the document more slowly. Break it into smaller parts. What does the document tell you about lifestyle, governmental affairs, historical events, economics, laws, beliefs, etc?
  • If the document is not dated, can you determine an approximate date from the information in the document?


  • Is the information given in the document reliable? How do you know? What other sources can you use to verify the document's accuracy?
  • Did the author take part in the event or was he/she reporting what others had said?
  • Did the author have a positive or negative interest in the events? How can you tell?

Determine its usefulness

  • What information from this document is useful for the development of your research topic?
  • What does this information add to the development or analysis of your research topic? How can incorrect information or a biased viewpoint be used in your analysis of your research topic?
  • What other questions or lines of inquiry does this document suggest?
  • Is the document a good visual for an exhibit or media presentation?

For more information

  • Kyvig, David E., and Myron A. Marty. Nearby History: Exploring the Past Around You. Reprint edition. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press, 1996.
  • Shafer, Robert J., et al. A Guide to Historical Method. 3rd edition. Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press, 1980.

Using photographs in historical research

Photograph of two women

Photographs can be primary sources which can yield much information about a topic and can add to the development of the research topic.


  • Who took the photograph--professional, friend, family?
  • Why was the photograph taken--keepsake, historical record, propaganda, etc.?
  • For what audience was the photograph taken--family, friends, general public? When was the photograph taken?
  • Where was the photograph taken?


  • Describe the action or the subject of the photograph.
  • What is the vantage point of the photographer? Looking up or down at the subject? Same level?
  • Divide the photograph into parts--background, individuals or groups of people, or objects. How do the parts relate to the main subject of the photograph?
  • Look at the details of the photograph. What is the time of the day/season of the year, location, event, culture, occupation? What objects are being used? How are they being used?
  • If the photograph is not dated, what items in the photograph might indicate its age?
  • Has the photograph been changed or enhanced by computer or other means?


  • Is the photograph a valid historical representation? Do the objects, people, and background all fit?
  • What other sources, visual or written, will confirm the accuracy of the information that you have discovered in the photograph? (It is important not to draw general conclusions based on a single source.)

Determine its usefulness

  • What does the information from the photograph add to the development or analysis of your research topic? How can a staged photograph or a propaganda piece be useful?
  • What other questions or lines of inquiry about your research topic does the photograph suggest?
  • Is the photograph a good illustration for a media presentation or exhibit?

For more information

  • Kyvig, David E., and Myron A. Marty. Nearby History: Exploring the Past Around You. Reprint edition. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press, 1996.
  • Nickell, Joe. Camera Clues: A Handbook for Photographic Investigation. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1994.
  • Schlereth, Thomas J. Artifacts and the American Past. Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History, 1980.

Using maps in historical research

Partial map

Maps can be primary sources which can add the concept of space to historical research as well as effectively communicate a variety of information. Answering the following questions may help you determine how or if a map can add to the development of your research topic.


  • Who made the map--amateur, professional?
  • What is its title?
  • For what audience was the map drawn?
  • When was it drawn? If it is not dated, how might you determine an approximate date?


  • What is the main subject of the map?
  • Familiarize yourself with the map's symbols and orientation.
  • Note any physical features such as bodies of water, elevations, geology, and vegetation.
  • Note cultural features such as land divisions; engineering projects; transportation routes; agricultural, industrial, and mining uses; government service areas; commercial facilities; recreational and religious facilities; and utilities.
  • What patterns do you find? How were the rural lands divided? How and where have the cities/towns grown? How were streets and avenues placed?
  • What relationships do you find? Are transportation routes affected by geology? Are the cities/towns located on waterways? Why? Where are major industries located? Where have inhabitants chosen to live?


  • How can you check the accuracy of information suggested by the map?
  • How does the map compare with others of the same area or time?
  • What changes have occurred to the space depicted on the map since the map was made?

Determine its usefulness

  • What information from the map is useful for the development of your research topic?
  • What does this information add to the development or analysis of your research topic? How can inaccurate information be useful?

For more information

  • Danzer, Gerald A. Public Places, Exploring Their History. Reprint edition. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press, 1996.

Preparing for and using an oral interview

Tape recorder preparing for oral interview

Oral history is not a substitute for basic research. It can be used to obtain eyewitness accounts, to validate other data, to collect opinions reflecting different points of view, to acquire background or perspective, and to collect up-to-date data.


  • Decide if an interview is appropriate and then who to interview.
  • Schedule the interview as soon as possible.
  • Learn as much as possible about the topic of your interview--the individual and/or event.
  • Prepare a brief outline of questions for the interview.
  • Make certain that equipment--tape recorder, video camera, etc.--is working properly.
  • Conducting an interview
  • Explain again to the interviewee your purpose for the interview.
  • Be yourself; listen carefully.
  • Take notes, especially for correct spellings of names and places.
  • Have interviewee sign a release for use of the interview.


  • Transcribe the interview or develop note cards of information relevant to your research topic.
  • What did the interviewee tell you about your research topic?
  • What did the interviewee tell you about lifestyle, culture, government, economy, education, etc.?


  • Is the interviewee a dependable source of information? Did the interviewee have a difficult time remembering dates, places?
  • Is the factual information valid? Compare this information with other primary and secondary sources.

Determine its usefulness

  • What information from this interview is useful for the development of your research topic?
  • What does this information add to the development or analysis of your research topic? How can incorrect information or biased viewpoints be used?
  • In what form will this information be most effective in presenting your research?

For more information

  • Baum, Willa K. Oral History for the Local Historical Society. Reprint edition. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press, 1996.
  • Hoopes, James. Oral History: An Introduction for Students. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979.
  • Metcalf, Fay D., and Matthew T. Downey. Using Local History in the Classroom. Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1982.

Research checklist

Following is a checklist of various aspects of the research process. Use it for planning, and consult it if you run out of ideas of where to look, who to ask, etc. Some items may be more appropriate for your particular needs than others.


Primary sources are materials that are directly related to a person, place, or event by time, association, or participation. Written materials may be in manuscript or printed form and include letters, speeches, diaries, newspaper articles from the time, transcripts of oral history interviews, official records (such as minutes, deeds, ledgers, charters, etc.). Photographs, paintings, music, artifacts, taped interviews, and anything else that provides first-hand accounts are considered primary sources. Printed versions (such as the Tipton Papers, published by the Indiana Historical Bureau or electronic facsimiles of primary sources are considered primary sources. An interview with a current expert (a professor of Indiana history, for example) is not a primary source.

Secondary sources are usually published books or articles (such as a county history or a study of politics in Indiana) which are based on primary sources or other secondary sources.

Secondary sources can provide useful insights into a research topic. They can be overviews and/or interpretations of certain events, places, or people. They can help to illustrate various aspects of the historical context of a subject and explain--each from a certain viewpoint--how the pieces fit together. Secondary sources often reflect the research trends at the time they were written. Of tremendous importance is the use of secondary sources' bibliographies and notes as springboards to more detailed subject-related resources. Secondary sources can lead directly to specific primary sources.

Have you visited:Have you consulted:



Historical societies

Card and/or computer catalog(s)


On-line databases

Newspaper offices



Have you analyzed your materials (documents, photographs, maps, etc.)?

Government offices

Is the information reliable?

Places of worship

Do other sources verify the accuracy?

Civic and service organizations

Is the information important to build your case?

Have you located:

Have you recorded information for your notes and bibliography?

Have you located:


Subject-related books





Place of publication


Date of publication

Government publications

Library call number

Manuscripts / typescripts

Have you photocopied the relevant pages of your sources following the rules of the facility?

Archival records


Doctoral dissertations


Masters theses




County histories/Atlases


Genealogical records






Interlibrary loan materials