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Research Strategies 

As you embark on your project, paper and/or assignment, these strategies can help you to understand the nature of primary sources and how to use them in your research: I. Forming a Research Question; II. Stages of Research; and III. Guided Questions to Evaluate Sources.


Developing a concise question establishes the foundation for your research. Here are a few ideas to consider as your start the research process.

1. Think of a broad topic and then develop a more narrow, specific question related to the topic that requires more investigation to answer. 

2. Consider the who, what, how and why  - think of open-ended questions to form a question.

3. Do preliminary research to determine what has been written on the topic and if sources exist to inform your research question.

4. Remember the scale of the project - make sure the length and the amount of time allotted for it is aligned with the scope of your research question.


Understanding the stages of the research process can help you develop a plan of action.

1. Conceptual Stage: Identifying Primary Sources
You determine the types and formats of primary sources, and differentiate between secondary and tertiary sources.

2. Find and Access Stage: Locating Materials
You identify locations of materials, use effective search strategies, and understand how to access primary sources.  Find out more about searching for primary sources here.

3. Reading, Understanding, and Summarizing Stage: Examining and Synthesizing
You start to examine, synthesize, and communicate about primary sources. This practical step includes accessing and handling materials.

Questions to consider: Can the source be located through a catalog or database? Is it digitized? Is the collection open for research? Is an appointment necessary? Is special handling of the material required? Can I photograph the item? 

4. Analytical Stage: Interpreting, Analyzing, and Evaluating Sources
You assess if a primary source aligns with goals of an assignment; analyze potential bias, audience, and gaps in historical records; evaluate the format and physical condition of primary sources; and understand the significance of preserving this content. This includes questioning, evaluating, interpreting, synthesizing, interrogating.

Questions to consider: How was a source created? Who created it? When was it created? What is the historical context? Who was the audience?

5. Ethical Stage:  Understanding
You begin to understand cultural context, laws, privacy rights, copyright, intellectual property.

Questions to consider: How might my research impact the creator? How do I access a work? How do I quote a source? Can this source be published?

6. Theoretical Stage:  Creating New Knowledge
You explore evidence, authority, power, authenticity, materiality, biases, absences.

Questions to consider: Where is the source geographically located? What is the scope and mission of the repository? What is represented in the collection and what is not? Is there an absence or gap in a collection - and why? Who is represented in a collection and who is not - and why? Who collected the source? What societal power structures exist or might be at play in the presentation of the source?


1. Physical Characteristics
First, consider the physical characteristics of the primary source you are examining.
What is the format - book, artifact, manuscript, newspaper, photograph, document, etc.?
What method and/or instrument was used to create it?
How many pages does it have?
What is the size of the item (dimensions)?
If it is a book, what type of cover does it have (ex. paperback)?
How is it bound and/or filed (ex. spiral bound, stapled, boxed)?
Does the item have illustration, etc.? If so, what do they depict or state?

2. The Creator(s) or Author(s)
One of the first things a historian does when encountering a historical document or item is to consider its authorship such as who wrote, recorded, or otherwise created the item.
Who created or authored the item?
Does the item include biographical content? If yes, describe it.

3. The Context
Another important part of the research process is to figure out when and where an item was created. It is important to be able to place the creation of the item on a timeline and in relation to historical events.
What year was the item produced? If there is no date, how could you estimate the year?
Where was it published or created?
What historical or social events might have influenced its production?

4. The Contents
How are the contents organized?  
there a preface or introduction and if yes, who wrote it?
Does the item have other information? If yes, what type?
Are there illustrations in the book or document and if yes, what type? How do they enhance the item or text?
What language(s) are represented in the item?

5. The Purpose: why was the item created?
What audience or user was the creator trying to reach?
How did you come to that conclusion?
Consider the point of view of the creator(s). What was their stake in producing the item?

6. The Meaning
What are your general impressions about the author, creator, historical context, etc.?
What does the item communicate?
What questions does this item answer and what needs further investigation?