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Medieval History Guide: Finding Secondary Sources

A guide to all things medieval in the library and on the web.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a secondary source?

A secondary source is about primary sources. Examples of secondary sources include textbooks, scholarly articles, books, some films, and online material. For more on secondary sources, see Rampolla 6-10.

How do I evaluate a secondary source?

Secondary sources range from fairly reliable to utterly misleading to blatantly false. Even the best secondary sources should be approached critically, with some key questions in mind:

• Who made it, and why?

• Who published or disseminated it? What audience is it aimed at?   

• When and where was it made, and how does it reflect or relate to its historical context?

• What primary source evidence was used?

• Does the argument stand up to logical scrutiny?

For more detailed information on evaluating different kinds of secondary sources, see Rampolla 16-21.


What does it mean when the database or website is called an index or bibliography?

An index or bibliography is essentially a list of other sources and can be a great resource for tracking down primary and secondary sources. In an online format, most indices or bibliographies allow you to type in a keyword and then retrieve a list of possibilities. As the researcher, it is your job to then take the next step to find the book or article.


How do I find a book or article that comes up in an index or database without full-text?

For books, you would first check Myrin Library's catalog. If they do not have it, you would request it through interlibrary loan. You should also make yourself familiar with the list of books that are on reserve for your class.

For articles, you would again start in the library's OneSearch catalog.  Enter the article's title in the main search box.  If we have full-text access to the article, a link will be listed for you.  If not, there will be a box you can click on to request the article via interlibrary loan.


Common mistakes and how to avoid them

• Problem: mistaking a popular history book for an academic or scholarly history book.

Solution: pay attention to the identity of the author and the publisher. Check the introduction and/or back cover; many times you will see clues as to the intended audience.

• Problem: assuming that just because something is online, it is credible.

Solution: be careful and cautious when using secondary sources that are only available online (i.e., this does not include books or articles that are also available in print form). Is the author of the material identified—what is his/her identity? Who is hosting the webpage—a university or a different kind of organization? What are the aims of that host? Are there citations (footnotes, links, etc.)—do the citations check out? For more, read Rampolla 19-21. 

Databases and Indices

Resource Hubs--Both Primary and Secondary Sources

Citing Your Sources

Citing your sources properly -- yes, even the images you use from the Internet -- is important and required. Generally, History courses require that you use Chicago citation style: footnotes and bibliography.

You should already own a copy of Mary L. Rampolla's A Pocket Guide to Writing in History. You can find all you need to know about formatting your footnotes and bibliography here, as well as helpful tips for evaluating sources and writing history papers. The inside of the back cover is a quick directory to documentation models. Each model gives you the format for your footnote (labeled “N”) and your bibliography entry (labeled “B”). Most students find it fairly easy to find and use the right formats for secondary sources, but if you get stuck, seek help. 

If you would like additional information, Purdue University's OWL Writing Lab Citation resources are the best ones out there on the web.


Selected Reference Books @ Myrin Library