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Home / Library / History Topics / History Topics Helps: Researching History - Step 4

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History Topics Helps: Researching History

Step Four: Analyzing And Using Your Sources

When you fully understand what a source is, only then can you responsibly consider how it will fit into your research paper. A good research paper does not simply report what is found, but seeks to convince the readers of something as a result of what was found. Here is a list of questions to ask and answer about each source:

1. What is the thesis of my research paper and does this source support or contradict that thesis?

How does it either support or contradict my thesis? Note that the purpose of your paper can change; never ignore evidence that works against your purpose. If you find more evidence that is contrary to your thesis than supportive of it, then you have learned something in the course of your research and may have to change your paper's focus accordingly.

2. How does this image or document relate to my other sources?

Think about how your sources fit together. Each source should be useful to fulfilling the purpose of your research paper, but each source might have a different role. Do some of the sources provide the same information in different ways? Do they provide different information? Including a source that contradicts your purpose can be useful; you show your readers that you are knowledgeable about ideas, opinions, and theories that are different from yours and that you have truly done your research by considering all angles. You can disagree with what a source says or assert that it is not as significant as other sources you have found while still including it in your paper with commentary about its relationship to your other sources.

3. What is interesting or unusual about this source?

Some of your sources may confirm things that you already know; others may add new information. Therefore read both texts and images carefully for new information.

You already know how to read texts, but may need some help with "reading" and analyzing photographs and other images. If so, consider the following examples:

  • Portrait: Burnside, Ambrose Photographs do not simply "record" what the photographer saw. A photographer may tell a person how to sit or even how to dress, may adjust lighting to emphasize certain features of a landscape, and can choose how to "frame" what he or she sees, leaving some things out while emphasizing others.

    In this portrait, Ambrose Burnside is shown in a typical stance for the time period (ca. 1863), designed to indicate to all who saw the portrait that he was an important man. Was he important, or was that wishful thinking on his part?

  • In this set of photographs-both of a husband and wife, both taken in a studio, both from about 1870-what can you tell about the two couples from the clothing they are wearing and from the background that was chosen? Is this an accurate depiction of what they could afford or is this how they wanted others to see them? Can you judge just by what you see in the photograph or do you need to do more research? If you have already done more research, does the photo confirm or contradict your other sources?
    Wedding couple, about 1870-1879.
Photographer: Z. P. McMiller. Location no. GT3.32d r1
Negative no. 68382.Wedding photo of Mr. and Mrs. Christopher Chrislock, 1870. Photographer:  Gustaf Berg. Location no. GT3.32d r4

Negative no. 14852
  • A photograph of a famous person may show him or her from a different perspective than we are used to seeing that person. If the only images of someone you have seen have been serious, formal, posed photographs, and then you find a candid shot of that person laughing and with his or her hair out of place, the new image makes you think differently about that person.

    Compare the two images of Governor Rudy Perpich, one as the serious politician, the other as a relaxed fisherman. Or maybe you see the famous person photographed with another famous person and this photograph provides evidence that they knew each other. Photographs of places and objects should be analyzed in a similar way.
    Rudolph G. Perpich, 1980.
Painter: Jerome Fortune Ryan. Location no. AV1996.9.34
Negative no. 83595Governor Rudy Perpich fishing, 1977.  Location no. por 14999 r8

Images of any kind — photographs, reproductions of art works, or scanned historical documents, for example — should contribute to the purpose of your research paper. If an image simply provides decoration or takes up space in your paper, there is no reason to use it. Your instructor will be able to tell if images are used merely as filler and are not analyzed.

The Minnesota Digital Library's Minnesota Reflections has two essays by Bonnie G. Wilson about analyzing and using photographs:

Interpreting Your Sources

Using your sources to create a coherent research paper means that you have to put the sources together and interpret them. Interpretation is like asking, "What is the story my sources seem to tell?" Once you are familiar with all of your sources and have analyzed all of your sources, ask the following questions to help you interpret them:

1. How have your ideas about your topic been changed by your research?

If you have kept an open mind and learned from your research, you will become aware of assumptions you have made in the past, and you may find that those assumptions were not entirely accurate. Use the way your ideas have changed as part of your paper's thesis.

2. How have your ideas about your topic been reinforced by your research?

You may find that the ideas you started out with are still strong after investigating your sources. If you find several sources asserting the same thing, then you have found an idea on which a lot of people agree: there is consensus.

3. What is the most interesting story that these sources seem to tell?

You might find that the ideas that changed while you did research are the most interesting, and that is a good way to focus your paper. Good thesis statements often posit something that is at least a little controversial, rather than something that everyone will readily accept. Remember, you want to convince your readers of something rather than telling them something they already know.

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