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Library Research Skills


This module defines scholarly writings and how to find them in the Athabasca University Library. You will need these skills in order to complete the assignments for this course and most other university courses. The module also suggests which library tutorials and study guides you should consult in order to improve your research skills. You will need access to the Internet as you work through Skills Module 1 and Quiz 1. You should also have handy the book by Jules R. Benjamin, A Student's Guide to History, which was included in your course package.

Skills Module 1 defines scholarly writings and how to find them in the Athabasca University Library. You will need these skills in order to complete the assignments for this course and most other university courses. The module also suggests which library tutorials and study guides you should consult in order to improve your research skills. You will need access to the Internet as you work through Skills Module 1 and Quiz 1. You should also have handy the book by Jules R. Benjamin, A Student's Guide to History, which was included in your course package.

Few history professors provide formal instruction on how to research or use research materials: they expect students to acquire these skills on their own or by seeking help from librarians.Some students in this course will have little or no experience in researching at the university level. Others may be very experienced.

Nevertheless, this module will provide the basic information and online tutorials on how to use Athabasca University's library system, and Quiz 1 will test you on how well you have absorbed the following instructions.

A. Scholarly Writings

Scholarly writings are essays and books written by expert scholars. Not all information about the past has equal value. The most valuable sources are those written by scholars who are well acquainted with historical sources, the methods used to interpret the sources, and what other experts are asking about the past. History students need to be able to locate scholarly writings and use them for their own research.

Assignments in history courses almost always involve some type of research. Students are required to find scholarly information on a particular topic or question, reflect, and communicate their findings in an essay. Writing essays encourages students to search for and use evidence. The best historical evidence is a "primary source": a document or artifact that is one step removed from a past event. Often the creator of the work is in the same time and place as the event being depicted, providing first-hand knowledge.These sources include letters, accounting records, laws, poems, buildings, and anything else that provides direct evidence of past human activity.

Another type of persuasive historical evidence involves the work of expert scholars who have studied primary sources from the past. Any writing that is more than one step removed from a historical event is a "secondary source." Much of a student's research involves combing through secondary sources in the form of scholarly essays (including articles) and books (monographs).

The most scholarly writings are those used by authors to communicate their research findings to other expert scholars. To persuade their peers, scholarly authors must follow a rigorous standard of using evidence and rational argument. Sometimes, however, scholars write for non-experts or even a general audience. These writings have less rigorous standards and are less persuasive, but are often easier for non-experts to understand.

The following are examples of scholarly writings you will encounter.

Scholarly Journals: A journal is a scholarly periodical published one or more times a year. For example, the American Historical Review is a journal that publishes its issues four times a year.It is published by the American Historical Association, an organization of historians (primarily professors). Each issue contains several articles on all aspects of history, as well as short reviews of new history books. Printed issues are sent to association members and are purchased by libraries. The journal is also published online and university students can access it through their library's subscription and search it using various library databases. In a bibliography or citation, the title of a journal is usually formatted in italics: Journal Name. The title of a journal article is usually placed between quotation marks: “Article Title.”

Peer-Reviewed Journal Articles: These articles are focused essays (usually about 30 pages in length) in which a scholar presents and argues the interpretation of historical evidence as the result of original research. The author is writing to convince other experts and backs up interpretations with citations to primary sources and the writings of other scholars. The discussion can be technical and difficult"”but articles are more focused and shorter than books. Articles can also be published more quickly than books, and so the most recent articles are usually more current than the most recently published books. Peer-reviewed means that the journal article was first read and approved by a committee of experts to ensure that the quality of research met scholarly standards. A Student's Guide to History provides more information on identifying scholarly articles. To identify if a given journal is peer-reviewed, you need to research the journal itself.One way to do this is to search Ulrich's Periodical Directory by the title of the journal.The information page for the journal will identify if it is refereed or not. If you need further assistance, feel free to contact your tutor or an AU librarian.

Ulrich's Periodical Directory:

Learning Activity: It is essential to understand the peer-review process, because it is the standard against which to measure other types of historical writing. View the following five-minute online tutorial:

Hyan-Duck Ching (Director). Peer Review in Five Minutes [Online tutorial]. Northern California State University Libraries, n.d. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZRQ1-l7bbXk

Peer-reviewed Monograph: These scholarly peer-reviewed books focus on a single topic. They have the full scholarly apparatus of footnotes and bibliography, and they develop a topic more fully than can be accomplished in a short article. The books are usually published by university presses, purchased by libraries, and addressed to other scholars. The title of a monograph or any book is usually put in italics: Book Title.

Scholarly Essay in a Collection: This type of essay is similar to a journal article. Although usually not peer-reviewed, the essays have been chosen by an editor (or editors) to be included in a collection of essays by other experts. For example, a conference of scholars may meet at a university to share their research, and decide to publish their presentations.The essay title is usually indicated with quotation marks and the book title is italicized: Joe Smith, “Essay on History.” In A Big Book of Essays about History, edited by Jane Doe.

Non-Scholarly Resources

General Histories: These books are often written by expert scholars for an audience of educated non-specialists, including students. They do not usually present original research in a persuasive argument, but rather summarize the findings of leading scholars. There may be citations of sources and certainly a bibliography. The author might draw on examples from primary sources, but he or she is not concerned with rigorously arguing an interpretation, so much as introducing non-specialists to a topic. The best general histories are both readable and offer an original overview of a historical period, event, or person. For this reason, a general history by an expert can be useful in a student research project, but should be supplemented by scholarly articles and books.

Encyclopedias: These reference books provide very brief summaries of topics. They are not scholarly because they do not present the original findings of scholars or present evidence to support their statements. The most useful are those that focus on a subject and have scholars as editors or contributors, for example, Peter N. Stearns, ed. Encyclopedia of European Social History from 1350 to 2000.This six-volume encyclopedia focuses on one subject. Encyclopedias can provide background information and suggest more scholarly books for you to research, but they are not usually adequate sources themselves for research essays.

Textbooks: Textbooks provide you with a broad introduction to a subject, but they are not considered scholarly works.Textbooks do not normally offer any original research nor do they usually include footnotes. They do, however, provide other tools to help you learn the very basics about a historical subject. For example, the publisher might include maps, tables, illustrations, glossaries, study questions, and often a companion website"”but these are often produced by a design department and may not be rigorously accurate. The textbook in this course is an example.

Popular Histories and Biographies: These books are intended to entertain a popular audience"”the sort of reading you might buy at an airport bookstore. They are usually written by professional writers rather than scholars and published by commercial publishers. These books rarely make reference to evidence or the interpretations of scholars, so footnotes and bibliography seldom clutter their pages. Usually they are intriguing stories narrated in a lively and engaging manner.

Popular History Magazines: These magazines are similar to the popular histories and biographies described earlier. Magazines such as History or National Geographic are commercial products that inform and entertain audiences. They are sometimes written by scholars, but more often by journalists who can explain the past to a general audience.

Documentary Films: Documentaries are commercial products intended to entertain and inform viewers"”especially school-aged audiences. Few are written by historians and it is common for documentaries to repeat common mistakes about the past. Sometimes documentary filmmakers interview scholarly experts"”but the experts are usually used as storytellers; rarely do they explain the evidence supporting their claims about the past. Nevertheless, unlike books, films present sights, sounds, and re-enactments using actors or animation.

Historical Fiction, Novels, and Motion Pictures: Many of us enjoy reading historical novels and watching films set in the past. Even when the films reflect real people and events, these forms of entertainment are fictional. The best are well-researched and recreate a past world more lifelike than can be conjured through scholarly writing. Nevertheless, authors, directors, and production teams take artistic liberty to change characters, events, and locations simply to entertain audiences or for artistic expression.

Websites: Use the Internet cautiously. Remember, anyone can post information on the Internet and the quality of work varies greatly. The more you work with high-calibre scholarly sources, the better your skills will be in evaluating online resources. It is best to use scholarly books and journal articles, many of which are now available online through university library subscriptions. Benjamin's, A Student's Guide to History, offers advice on evaluating web-based sources. If you want tips on how to search for quality information on the Internet, see the short guide on Internet searching accessed from AU Library's Help Centre Tutorials at http://library.athabascau.ca/help.php?id=2

Now that you have read a little bit about the different types of historical writings and which are best for your research projects, the next part of this skills module explains how to find the scholarly books and articles you will need to complete projects in this and other courses.

B. Researching at Athabasca University Library

University libraries specialize in providing scholarly information to experts and students. In this way, these libraries are different from public libraries which provide more generic information to the general public.

This section explains how to access scholarly information from the AU Library, but many of these same principles can be used at any university library. If you are a visiting student from another university, learn how to effectively use the library at your home institution. AU and other libraries offer short online tutorials and instructions.Please contact your tutor or an AU librarian if you have questions.

You will find AU Library tutorials and the AU Library Tour at the Library's Help Centre website: http://library.athabascau.ca/help.php?id=2

  1. AU Library Tour

    Take the "AU Library Tour," a quick tutorial of the AU Library website.

  2. AUCAT Tutorial

    The AU Library catalogue is called AUCAT. To learn about the search features of the catalogue take the "AUCAT Tutorial."
  3. Finding Scholarly and Non-Scholarly Journal Articles using a Journal Database

    To find journal articles you will need to consult one or more of the journal databases on the AU Library website.

There are many databases, and some are better than others for topics in various periods of history.In this module, we will use the JSTOR and Academic Search Complete databases, where you will find scholarly and non-scholarly articles in history and many other subjects.

JSTOR, for example, offers a quick tutorial on searching. To find either JSTOR or Academic Search Complete, start from AU Library's homepage at http://library.athabascau.ca/

Select "Databases"

Click on "List Databases by Subject"

Follow the link for "History"

Select JSTOR from the long list of databases. JSTOR will open to the "Basic Search" tab. Select the "Advanced Search" tab.

The advanced search interface is very intuitive, but click on "View Tutorial."

Select "How do I run an advanced search?" and select the best language and format for your needs.

This brief tutorial provides information that is very useful in using JSTOR and the general tips for searching are applicable to other journal databases, such as Academic Search Complete. It is best to select the "Advanced Search" tab when using a database.

  1. Finding a Full Text Article using a Citation

    Take the "AU Journal Title List Tutorial" to learn how to find articles when you have a citation that includes the name of an article, the name of its journal, the year and issue it is in, as well as author and page numbers.

  2. Boolean Search Guide

    The very short "Boolean Search Guide" provides several valuable tips to help focus your online searches.

After you have finished the tutorials, complete Section C. Skills Module Exercises, and practice searching AUCAT, the AU Library list of journal titles, and journal databases. The AU Library has various other tools and tutorials and you are encouraged to browse the Help Centre. The themes in this skills module are also reviewed in Benjamin's A Student's Guide to History.

Remember, the AU Library also offers assistance from friendly librarians who have experience answering questions and guiding researchers. Your tutor can also offer help.

C. Skills Module Exercises

These exercises will challenge the skills you have learned in this module. Record your answers as you will be asked to provide them as part of Quiz 1. As you work through the exercises, you will be using AUCAT, E-Journals, and JSTOR or Academic Search Complete databases.

Search AUCAT

  1. What is the AU Library Catalogue number for Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. Vol. 1?


  2. What is the name of the publisher of W.F. Bynum, E.J. Browne and Roy Porter, eds. Dictionary of the History of Science, 1981?


  3. Where was E.H. Carr. What is History? Penguin Books, 1964, published?


  4. Who is the author of The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150-750. New York, 1989?


  5. When was Thomas More. Utopia: A Revised Translation, Backgrounds, Criticism. Trans. Robert M. Adams. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, written?


  6. Who translated Louis XIV and Twenty Million Frenchmen. New York: Vintage Books, 1972?


  7. Which edition of Mortimer Chambers et al. The Western Experience. New York: Knopf, was published in 1979?


  8. How many pages in length is the book: Athabasca History Society, David Gregory and Athabasca University. Athabasca Landing: An Illustrated History: A Seventy-fifth Anniversary Project. Athabasca, Alberta: Athabasca Historical Society, 1986?


  9. Using AUCAT, look up the e-book, Old Regime France, 1648-1788. It is a collection of scholarly essays edited by William Doyle. Open the e-book and find out who wrote chapter 2, "Society."


Search the AU Journal Title List

  1. Who wrote the article on pages 439-455 of volume 34, issue number 2 (summer 2003) of The Sixteenth Century Journal?


Search a Database (JSTOR and Academic Search Complete)

  1. Consult Academic Search Complete to find which journal published the article "Women or Healers? Household Practices and the Categories of Health Care in Late Medieval Iberia" by Montserrat Cabré?


  2. Who wrote the article: "Constantinople, and the Barbarians," The American Historical Review, Vol. 86, No. 2 (Apr., 1981), pp. 275-306?


  3. Using Academic Search Complete, find the journal volume and issue in which the article "Franciscan inquisition and mendicant rivalry in mid-thirteenth-century Marseille" by Holly J. Grieco appeared in 2008?


  4. Practice limiting the results of an advanced search in JSTOR by finding out who wrote the 1954 article about Galileo's invention of the telescope?


  5. Using Academic Search Complete, find out which author and journal published an article about the Catholic chocolate controversy in early modern Spain?


  6. Using Academic Search Complete, find the page range for the article "Crisis and Catastrophe: The Global Crisis of the Seventeenth Century Reconsidered"?


  7. Using Academic Search Complete's advanced search and limiting the results, find Helen Lacey's 2008 article on medieval history. Consult footnote 4 on page 37. It mentions a scholarly essay that appeared in a collection edited by N. Morgan. What was the name of the book in which the essay appears?


  8. Using Academic Search Complete, find out who wrote the three-page book review of Rosamond McKitterick's book, Charlemagne: The Formation of a European Identity in volume 84, issue 3 of Speculum in 2009.


Congratulations on finishing your first skills module! You have already practiced the skills you will need to become a good researcher.