So you have to write a senior essay. Assuming you have already lined up an adviser and have some idea of a topic, then you're ready to begin your research. But how do you begin? Follow these three steps and you should be well on your way to writing a strong senior essay.
Finding secondary source materials relevant to your project - what is called conducting a "literature review" - is an essential part of the senior essay. Unfortunately, senior essayists often pay too little attention to this crucial step. The importance of locating secondary sources is not simply to find background information for your project, though this is undoubtedly important. The purpose of the literature review is to identify a scholarly conversation in which you are going to situate your research. This is called positioning your argument. Remember, historical scholarship is an ongoing conversation among scholars and your senior essay is an effort to participate in a scholarly conversation.
Here is a test: when you think you have formulated a research topic, ask yourself this question: "Who cares?" One must know what scholars have been saying about his or her topic in order to know what new or interesting can be said.
Unsure of what I just said or its relevance to your senior essay project? Then read these chapters from two of my favorite books:
Step Two: Getting Started on your Literature Review
Putting together a high-quality list of books and journal articles on a subject can be tricky. Literature reviews usually start with a book recommendation from an adviser, something you came across on a syllabus, searching amazon.com, talking with friends, or searching google. All of this is great, and you will do a lot of it. But there are more systematic things you can do to supplement this organic and unwieldy process.
Use Reference Sources
One thing you can do is to find a high-quality reference book on the topic you are researching. Lucky for you, the Yale University Library subscribes to several reference databases that allow you to search hundreds of reference books at once to find relevant articles. Remember, when you find relevant entries in encyclopedias, handbooks, dictionaries, or any other reference book, you are interested in the pointers to further reading in the entries every bit as much as you are interested in the article itself. The best databases for historians are:
This database contains nearly all of the volumes in Blackwell's excellent Companion to . . . series. Having it in a database is fabulous, though, because it not only allows you to view entries online, but it allows you to search the entire Blackwell collection at once. To give you an idea of the quality of essays in this database, consider this Matthew Frye Jacobson essay on ethnicity from A Companion to Post-1945 America (edited by Professor Jean-Christophe Agnew). Blackwell publishes companion books on nearly every period and subfield of history. Outstanding resource.
This database provides access to a number of high-quality reference books, and allows you to search the entire database at once. It contains more reference sources for European and international history than Blackwell. Again, what you're looking for are not just articles, but articles with pointers to further reading. Some articles treat "Scholarly interpretations and debates."
The works just like the Gale Virtual Reference Library above, but includes access to the whole range of reference books published by Oxford University Press.
The Cambridge Histories Online offers up-to-date, authoritative, and fully searchable histories in fifteen academic subject areas.
Search Journal Literature
Additionally, you will want to search some other databases in order to find scholarly articles relevant to your research:
You probably already know and love JSTOR. It's great; it provides full-text access to hundreds of important journals. But it's always out-of-date (on an average of five years) and you'll want to supplement JSTOR searches with . . .
American History and Life is fabulous. It indexes far more journals than JSTOR, and also includes books and dissertations. It's the essential database for historical literature reviews for North American history.
Historical Abstracts is also excellent and essential; it covers world history, 1450-present. It indexes over 2,000 journals from around the world in many languages, providing coverage of articles, dissertations, and books. The abstracts are a particularly good way to get a handle on the historiography of your topic.
[Note: This section corresponds with Chapter Five: From Problems to Sources, in The Craft of Research.]
Assuming you have done your literature review and have found books related to your topic, you should have some idea as to what primary sources materials should be available to you. That is to say, chasing down footnotes and looking at bibliographies in the back of books to see what other authors have used is a great way to find primary source collections. That said, here are some more ideas for when you don't know where else to turn.
A good overview of the types of tools to find primary source material, both at Yale and beyond, is found on this Primary Sources at Yale website. All of the sources listed have their relative strengths and weaknesses. Here are my favorites:
Keep in mind that a very good - and often overlooked - source of primary source material at Yale can be found in the Microfilm Reading Room in the basement of Sterling Memorial Library. This link brings you to a list of major microfilm collections available in the Microfilm Reading Room.