World Civilizations


Research Help

Most students in a survey course such as world civilizations think that a history paper has to be about dead presidents or dry political treatises. While some may find these fascinating subjects, most college sophomores would not. A history paper should reflect your personal interests. Your paper will be better, your grade will be better, and your professor won't have to read another boring analysis of the Peace of Westphalia.

Your first step toward crafting this super paper is identifying a general topic. What are you interested in? Sports? Music? Women's Rights? Science? Politics? Current Events? Remember almost anything which intrigues you has a historical element. The invention and popularization of computers is a historical topic. So is Michael Jordan's early life. How about the activist ideas found in rock n' roll lyrics of the 60s. (Some might argue the significance of such topics, but a well crafted, well supported paper will get you the grade every time--and such a paper is much easier for you to write if you're covering a subject in which you are interested.) Pick a general era, then start narrowing in on your available resources. Don't be afraid to change topics at this point if you find that resources are difficult to find.


  • NEWSPAPERS: Not only can you explore online the latest newspapers, you can often search their archives for articles related to recent events. A student once submitted an excellent paper which compared the newspaper coverage of a trial of the man who murdered a black civil rights leader. The newspapers he chose? A prominent northern newspaper, the newspaper for the town in which the trial took place, and the newspaper from the murderer's southern hometown. He chose his sources logically, and his analysis had something substantial to say about the way information is presented in the American newspaper.
  • JOURNALS and DIARIES: Are you a people person? There are lots of journals online from many countries and time periods. Do some searching, explore some of the collections, and perhaps you could shed light on the actions of a famous person, or the feelings of a "common" man during a period of historical importance. A Midwive's Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is a great example of what can be done by analyzing what one person records in her diary and supplementing with all available records for that era. Your paper will be much shorter than her book, of course, but you too can extract significant information about a brief period in the life of your subject, or perhaps your subject's attitude toward one or two relevant issues or events.
  • PHOTOS/ARTWORK: Is it the arts which speak to you? The content and composition about popular art can speak volumes about a people's collective attitude. A student once submitted a superb paper which analyzed the depiction of westerners in Japanese art during Admiral Perry's "opening" of Japan. She supplemented with journals and letters of the era which also reflected the prevailing sentiments towards the western barbarians.
  • GOVERNMENT DOCUMENTS: Are you interested in the workings of government and political process? Well many governments are now putting that kind of information online. The United States Government in particular has a marvelous collection for almost every agency and department. From the Treasury Department to the Smithsonian Institution, there is something online that is sure to interest you. The United Nations also has a very large site full of primary source documents such as U.N. reports on social conditions in various countries and copies of treaties and agreements.
  • MUSIC: Any era, any genre, you'll find a plethora of sites dedicated to music and musicians. Whether your passion is for Beethoven or Bon Jovi, Prokofiev or Pearl Jam, you'll find sites online with full text lyrics to popular songs, sound files of famous pieces, and the history of various artists and composers. Remember you have to use primary sources, so if you're going to write a paper about Bob Dylan, you cannot use a fan's history of Bob as primary source data. However, if you're going to analyze his music's references to a particular political movement or issue (such as war or education) then those fans may have some great data out there for you in the form of transcriptions of Dylan's songs.
A word of warning to the users of online sources as documentation, just as in the print medium, some sources and authors are better than others. For example, if you're doing a paper on Bob Dylan's song lyrics and you're using transcriptions from sites posted by his fans, there may be faulty transcriptions, mistaken attributions, or just general errors. Compare to other versions of the song, or visit a reputable site which is reviewed or sponsored by a professor, a university or a government office. (Even then, errors can occur, however, such sites are generally very conscientous.) Analyze your source, just as you would with a book or a journal article. Who is its author? Why is the author preparing and offering the material? Does the author have biases which might affect the evidence they present? How can you determine the accuracy and reliability of your source?
As you begin researching, watch for a specific question to answer or story to tell. Support your claims with primary source evidence, and dazzle your reader with clear and logical prose. (For writing and research helps, visit W.W. Norton's Webworks.) Do you feel ready to begin exploring the archives? Visit Primary Sources. If none of these collections appeal to you, or you wish to find more like it, return to this page for help SEARCHING THE WORLD WIDE WEB.

Now you've found the collections which fascinate you, you've begun to read and research, and you've narrowed your topic to a question or story you wish to discuss. Are you taking good notes, and keeping track of your sources for later citation? Are you analyzing your sources critically to determine how accurate the account, how reliable the author, how verifiable the fact, how consistent the story? Are you using good, primary sources to support your ideas?

If you are having trouble remembering the difference between a primary and secondary source or understanding how much and what types of evidence you need, click HERE.

If you want to read a review of an author's work, or find out which authors are the authorities in your area of interest, try visiting some of the academic journals online. If you have questions your research just doesn't seem to answer, you can even try emailing your (researched and intelligently phrased) questions to professors and scholars currently studying those issues. You can usually find their email addresses by visiting the college for which they work.

Another important issue is citations. You must give proper credits for words, phrases, and ideas which are not your own. Visit H-Net's citation guide for the latest on Internet Citation Protocol. After the text explanation of the method, there are a number of examples of proper bibliographic citation, including gopher, ftp, listserv, newsgroup, and email citations. Proper form counts when you make citations, not only to your professor who will mark you down if you don't use it, but to those who might wish to find your fabulous sources themselves.

Above all, broaden your mind, enjoy the exploration, and learn something new about history, and about the new technology which brings it all so close to home. Happy Surfing!


World Civilizations

RESEARCH: Ralph'sWorld Civilizations
Page created by Thomas Pearcy, Ph.D. and Mary Dickson.
We welcome your comments. Please contact Steve Hoge, Editor.
Last revised June 5, 1997.
Copyright (c) 1997. W. W. Norton Publishing. All Rights Reserved