How do I sift through all of the scholarship on my topic? (B. Zakarin 2010)

Contributor: B. Zakarin, Office of Fellowships,
Posted: 2010

Secondary sources are scholarly works that inform your research and represent voices in the academic conversation to which your thesis will be a contribution.  Common forms of secondary sources are books, journal articles, and dissertations.  Though it may seem counterintuitive, as you conduct your legwork, secondary sources should come before primary sources (that is, documents from the historical period you plan to study).  Start with a broad search and develop a long working bibliography.  Then, start prioritizing the material based on how closely it relates to your emerging topic.

Consider these tips to maximize productivity in the legwork stage:

  • Start with the most recent works and mine their bibliographies and footnotes to identify other secondary sources.
  • Share your working bibliography with faculty to catch significant works you might have missed and to prioritize the material you have discovered on your own.
  • Share your working bibliography with librarians to see if you are missing major resources such as journals or reference guides that exist only in print.
  • Save interesting yet ancillary literature (especially slow-going readings in a foreign language) for the end.


To cast a wide net, use databases of indexes and abstracts of current and past scholarship.  These resources return citations for and brief summaries of books, articles, and book reviews.  The best resources to start with are “America: History and Life” (for American and Canadian history) and “Historical Abstracts” (for the rest of the world from the Renaissance to the modern era).  You can efficiently glean a few important insights through working with these resources:

  • How was a book received?  The number of book reviews will give you an idea of how much attention was paid to a given work.  In addition, you can get a quick summary of a book’s arguments and shortcomings, as perceived by other scholars.  If a book is widely reviewed, then make sure to include it in your bibliography.
  • What is the state of the field?  Look for “review essays” in journals that provide a historiographical overview of recent scholarship or a longitudinal review of scholarship on a topic.  While giving you a capsule summary of works that you might address in your proposal, these essays may point you toward even more sources.
  • How can you acquire a copy of the source?  Use the “Find it at NU” button to determine if the work is available in physical or electronic format, or if you will need to order it via Interlibrary Loan.  (See below for details on Interlibrary Loan.)