Secondary Research

kinds • finding • Philadelphia • a word on the web


Historians divide the world of source material into two rough categories, secondary sources and primary sources. In a nutshell, secondary sources are those materials written by another historian: a monograph, a history textbook, a general encyclopedia like the Encyclopedia Britannica, a specialized encyclopedia like the Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History, or biographical reference works like Who's Who. Sometimes the distinction between primary and secondary works can be a little fuzzy: what about a history textbook written in the 1920s, for example? It might still be a secondary source if you are using it for information on events in the 1890s (that's not really a good idea, though, to use something that old in such a way), but it might be a primary source if you're studying, say, what universities taught in the 1920s.


And what is a monograph? It is a history book on a single topic—it is the most common kind of book that history professors write. Perhaps it's on Italian immigrants in Buffalo, or doctors in the French Revolution, or the U.S. synthetic organic chemicals industry, 1910-1930. If a professor makes you write a book review, chances are good that you are reviewing a monograph.

Historians also publish scholarly articles in professional journals, such as the American Historical Review (the biggy), and don't forget to consider articles in journals as you locate secondary works on your topic.

A novel, by the way, is a work of fiction, so don't be surprised if your professor drops red ink all over your paper if you refer to a history book as a novel. And red ink is apparently psychologically damaging to students; just don't risk it. (Though, of course, some history courses use novels. Don't let your professor fool you.)


Ideally, you can place your own original research (based on primary sources) in conversation with other historians and their scholarship in monographs and professional journals (the two secondary sources you should use most regularly). Identify the historians' arguments and see to what extent the evidence in your research supports or opposes their work.

  • Drexel University • College of Arts & Sciences • History & Politics • Prof. Steen

  • Department of History & Politics, Drexel University, 3141 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-2875 •