Historians study the past by interpreting evidence. The historian works by examining primary sources--texts, artifacts, and other materials from the time period. From comparing these sources and evaluating them in context, the historian develops interpretations, often in light of the interpretations of other historians. The interpretive writings of historians--books, journal articles, encyclopedia entries--are considered secondary sources. (See Northpark, "Using Historical Sources").
Historical research means, then, identifying the secondary and primary sources, asking questions about how the evidence fits with the interpretations, and then testing these ideas. While historians need to establish answers to the basic questions of who, what, when, and where, the biggest question often is why. Why did people in a particular society in the past act in the ways they did? The why question is more open-ended, and allows for different perspectives and interpretations.
Historians share their interpretations through conference papers and other oral presentations and lectures, through publishing books and articles in journals, and through teaching classes. In general, "opinion surveys" or interviews with experts are not the best way to access the research expertise of historians. "As a rule of thumb, if a person has published something on a subject you are interested in, you should read that publication before you try to contact the author" (General Advice from Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages).
If you ask a faculty member their opinion on something, they are liable to refer you to the primary and secondary reading materials and then ask you what YOU think. On the other hand,as trained historians, scholars are adept at assessing historical thinking skills and they are more than willing to comment on your interpretations and whether they think your arguments make sense and are well-supported from the evidence.
Do some background work first to narrow your interest and come up with specific questions. Explore all the secondary and primary sources on your topic that you can find in local libraries or on the Internet. Although the World Wide Web increasingly has some excellent resources, it is incomplete and fragmentary, and has no where near the breadth and depth of materials available in print in libraries (see websurf).
Secondary sources are useful for understanding the overall context, types of primary sources available, and the main issues and questions. Encyclopedias and textbooks are good places to start in order to get the general picture, but one should then turn to more specific books and articles for up-to-date and more complete information, bibliographies of sources, and different interpretations.
Primary sources are the raw material, the evidence used to support interpretations. Even with difficulties of translation and availability, students should try to engage as directly as possible with primary sources to understand how the process of building historical arguments works.
Students and others working on historical research projects are encouraged to ask problem-based questions. The best topics are often those where there is some controversy, unresolved issue, or different points of view. Comparing interpretations, weighing the evidence, and thinking about the past from new perspectives are at the heart of the historical enterprise.
Generic questions will get generic answers, while specific questions that show some thought will get specific and thoughtful answers. Assume that the scholar you contact is going to point you to other resources and not just give you "the answer." So phrase your questions as an inquiry asking for more information.
Example of a successful query:. . .I spoke with you on the phone about getting primary sources for my History Day project on Martin Luther. Secondary sources have not been a problem for me, but seeing as how the Protestant Reformation occurred in the early 16th century, the primary resources are scarce. Anything you can give me would be a great help.
Reply from a colleague: . . .The student can get an idea of the primary sources for Luther on the web at the Internet Medieval Sourcebook. This page has a specific section on Luther, with several primary sources (e.g., 95 Theses) as well as links to good reference sites (Project Wittenberg, for example). From these she can probably find bibliographies of full primary sources in print to locate in the library.
Example of a less successful query:Hello, I am a student doing a school project on early civilizations. I have been assigned the Shang Dynasty (Yellow River). I was wondering if you could help me with my research. Thank you for your time!
This was sent to a world civilization instructor who is not a specialist in either China or early civilizations, but had a world civ course outline on the web mentioning the Shang. A more careful search of the web would have prevented this fruitless query. The instructor replied: Unfortunately, just about everything I know about the Shang dynasty is on that webpage, the lecture notes to my world civ class. I highly recommend the weblinks provided there (Paul Halsall's Chinese Culture course, the Global Consortium page on China). Perhaps contact a specialist in ancient Chinese history or archaeology, or use the resources at your local library. Good luck.