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U.S. History Overview (TR): Get Started

What should I look for in my assignment?

  • Keywords or verbs. Words like summarize, compare, analyze, or argue direct you to think about your topic in a certain way.
  • Technical details which indicate format rules or guidelines like font, length, spacing, and citation style.
  • Project logistics will tell you about the final product, whether it is supposed to be a speech, written paper, or other presentation.
  • Number and type of sources such as peer-reviewed, scholarly, primary or secondary.
  • Due dates for drafts and final paper/presentation. Plan ahead for time in the library and writing center.
  • Check out Understanding Assignments from the Writing Center at UNC Chapel Hill for more information.

Where do I find topic ideas?

Why do I need background information?

  • To become familiar with the issues, debates, and historical context of your topic.
  • To learn about names, dates, and places relevant to your topic.
  • Preliminary research will also help you become more familiar with the terminology used to discuss your topic, which will be of use in identifying keywords to use when searching for more in-depth research later on.

Types of Sources

What are primary sources?

Primary sources:

  • provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation without evaluation or interpretation.  
  • contain the information from which a secondary or tertiary source is derived and are written by someone directly involved in the historical event or primary research. 
  • include original documents such as diaries, speeches, letters, audio transcripts, emails, autobiographies, and interviews
  • include creative works such as photographs, novels, poetry, music, and artworks 

Source: University of Maryland Libraries

How do I find primary sources? 

Finding primary sources in the catalog is easier when you know the words used to describe them.

Author Search:
If you know the name of an individual or an organization search it as the author in the library catalog.
Enter personal names as Last Name, First Name
"Franklin, Benjamin" is helpful to get books, letters, and diaries written by him instead of about him.
Names of organizations are entered in the direct order of the name.
"National Association for the Advancement of Colored People" finds files, reports, and conference notes. 


Advanced Keyword Search: 
These terms can be added to your search to help describe a type of primary source you want to find.

  • archives
  • cartoon or comic strip
  • correspondence
  • diary or diaries
  • documentary
  • interview
  • letters
  • manuscript
  • papers
  • personal narrative
  • speeches
  • sources

Example Advanced Keyword Search:
(submarine OR navy OR naval) AND (diaries OR narratives OR sources)
Results of this search include e-books containing the diaries and letters of war-time navy pilots as well as government documents written by U.S. Navy officials.


Subject Search:
Usually, library catalogs have at least one Subject describing the general topic of the item. Subjects may be subdivided to indicate geographical location, time period, or format. Some of the Subject subdivisions that may indicate an item is a primary source include correspondence, diaries, interviews, and sources.

Example Subject Search:
Women's Rights -- United States -- History -- Sources
The results of this search include essays and other primary sources written by activists throughout the women's right movement in U.S. history.

What about Secondary Sources?

Secondary Sources:

  • provide analysis and interpretation of the primary source.
  • are one or more steps removed from the original event. 
  • may have pictures, quotations, or graphics from the original source.
  • include textbooks, magazine articles, histories, criticisms, and commentaries.

Examples of Secondary Sources:

  • your history textbook
  • a biography of Benjamin Franklin or any other famous American
  • a book which explains the effects of the Revolutionary War
  • an article which includes analysis of a historical event


Source: Princeton University 

Video Tip

Understanding the Assignment (2:59 min)
Courtesy Clifton L. Fowler Library, CCU

Video Tip

Primary & Secondary Sources (2:54 min)
Courtesy Imagine Easy Solutions

More Help on Primary Sources