Hints on How to Write a Good History Research Paper

When you are writing a history paper it is important to differentiate between primary and secondary sources.

Primary Sources

Primary sources are documents which were created in the period of the subject or event you are studying. It can be a document that was created by those who participated in the event or those who observed the event.

For example: if your topic covers packinghouse workers in Chicago during 1900-1920 your primary sources might include:

  • Chicago newspapers between 1900 and 1920
  • Short films made during that time period
  • Settlement housing records
  • Novels about the packing yards written during that time
  • Census records about the neighborhood residents during that time
  • Documentation on a mechanical conveyor system which was used to move the dead bodies of animals from one room to another
  • Autobiographies of the workers or executives
  • Maps that shows the packing house plant locations
  • Music made during that time (such as work songs)
  • Oral histories from employees during that time

That being said the medium of a primary source can range from anything including cartoons and objects as well as films and written texts. The defining aspect of a “primary” source is the time period in which it was made but what the source actually is.

Remember though that books written by a historian about that time period of event do not count because they are written by someone after the time period. So if you reading a historic book that was written during that time period it is important to remember that a historian’s forward to the recently republished version does not count.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are anything that a scholar has written about the topic or the event. The secondary sources you find may very well review or critique the same primary sources. If that is the case you should make sure you have copies of the primary sources they are using too.


Once you have located primary sources and read over secondary sources you are ready to start writing. Remember that if you are struggling to find a source or you are unsure of whether the source you have in your hand is considered a primary or secondary source because there is no publishing date on it you can always ask a librarian. They are happy to help and can offer great insight.