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Historical Research & Historiography

Getting Started with Research: Finding and Narrowing a Topic

As you embark on a new research project, you may find yourself with a range of different ideas or topics that you might like to explore. Your ideas may be abstract and general ("I'd love to look into World War I" or "I want to know more about what women in Europe were doing during the Enlightenment period.") but in order for you to conduct research, review the literature, construct your argument, and finish your paper by your deadlines, you will need to learn how to narrow your topic to a specific, answerable question. 


Finding a Topic

You may already have an idea of what you would like to research: a people or group, an event or phenomenon, or a place at a specific point in history. If you are still searching for ideas, here are some ways you might uncover new topics to explore:

  • Is there a past assignment, project, or discussion, from your course that you enjoyed researching or had lingering questions for?
  • Consider your personal interests and activities. You may be interested to learn more about how a particular hobby developed or changed overtime in response to historical events. 
  • Are you interested in a current event or issue in a place, society, the world? Within the context of your course, there may be a connection you could explore related to the contemporary period you're studying.

It's good to not only consider a topic related to your course but one that relates to your personal or professional interests - this will make the research process more exciting and fun for you! Professors can also very easily tell when a student has enjoyed the topic; that enthusiasm will shine through the writing and make for a better paper all around.

Identifying Key Words


Once you've found a topic or two that you are interested in exploring, you will need to create a list of key terms that you can use when searching in databases or for primary sources. For research in history and the humanities, you're going to want to consider a range of things when building a key word list, including:

  • Modern vs Contemporary Names for  Places & Events
  • Authors or People with Titles, Aliases, or Professional Names (for example, a writer with a pseudonym)
  • Alternative Spellings for modern vs contemporary words
  • Time Periods (18th century vs eighteenth-century) 
  • Synonyms for common actions or objects 
  • Cultural context and how to capture this

You will also want to keep this keyword list in mind for when you are searching for both primary and secondary sources.

  • For secondary sources, you may want to use the key words above and then control for the Item Type, to find scholarly articles, books, or reference materials.
  • For primary sources, you may want to add in more key words that control for a specific time of resources, like diaries, journals, or letters.

Check out the video below to get a sense on how to generate key words for your topic.