Thesis and Research Steps:
Notes from a research
librarian and historian
To the Art of Local History
Start with your
initial inquiry, your
thesis statement or question. (see thesis handout)
For example, “Why are salmon important to Native Cultures in
the Olympia area and what is the economic and historical role of salmon in this
I want to know about salmon and its cultural role among native peoples in
the Olympia area. Where do I start? (Hint, check the class website for
links to Native culture sites)
other questions and research areas are clearly defined in your thesis? Use
them in your research too.
Begin with books. The web is great but only a fraction
of what’s available is on the web. Background reading helps inform your research
and may help change your thesis focus.
- Do a
keyword search in the TESC library catalog. (See library handout).
I tried: “Olympia salmon history” as a key word search and
got nowhere. Darn!
So I expanded my search.
“Salmon Washington State history” and boom, suddenly four books.
Go look at them. Do they help you? Are there other books
next to them that are also interesting and useful?
the stacks” and read the table of contents and look at the references,
footnotes and bibliographies of the books you find. Are there more sources
that one of the books has a strong focus on Native cultures evident in the
title. What subject is it listed under? Are there more books under that
notes on what you read and keep track of your searching with a research log:
that “Olympia Salmon History” didn’t work in the TESC catalog but “Salmon
Washington State History” did.
the subject headings and titles and call numbers of books. Write your
notes about what you’ve read in your notebook and be sure to list a
complete title, author and publication information: for example, Daniel L.
Boxberger, To Fish in Common: The Ethnohistory of Lummi Indian Salmon
Fishing (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999). Subjects: Lummi
Indians -- Fishing; Lummi
Indians -- Fishing -- Law and legislation; Salmon
fishing -- Washington (State); Fisheries
-- Economic aspects -- Washington (State)
under the subject headings and see if they can help you locate more books.
Keep track of the books so you don’t repeat work you’ve already done.
Taking a few minutes to write down what you’ve looked at, checked out,
ordered and read will help you sort through information later, give you a
nice list to offer at the end of your web text so folks know where your
information came from, and keeping a log will also help you assist your
peers in their research.
Trust what you’ve
studied before: Think
of words, books, resources, ideas that will bring you closer to your question.
Or ask others about their knowledge (reference librarians can be very helpful,
so can online history resources for the class. Ask Ed for help too). For
example, because I’ve taught Pacific NW history before, I know that a book
called To Fish in Common by Daniel Boxberger offers exciting and
interesting history on fishing rights and Pacific Northwest Indian Treaty
rights, policy and culture. So, I looked up that book by doing a title search
in the TESC library catalog: “To fish in common,” and discovered to my dismay
that it’s not in our library! Why not, it was there before?! I checked, someone
stole it and it hasn’t been replaced. What to do now?! Well, it so happens that I have a personal
copy to put on reserve for the class (hint, check books on reserve). Just
because it isn’t right here doesn’t mean you can’t have it.
- Do a
title or keyword search in Summit for books (the multi-state catalog that
loans books to students in Oregon, Washington and Idaho). There it is, To
Fish in Common,7 copies. I can order it right now and it will come in
prepared for frustration! Research is grinding, frustrating, work. It’s
best done over long periods of time with close attention to where you’ve
looked before and in a library where you can find help when you hit a dead
articles to inform yourself about specific kinds of information: Journal
articles are almost always very narrowly focused. So, you may not find anything about salmon and
Olympia history, but you may find something about salmon and Pacific Northwest
history but with a very specific thesis. These articles can be useful for
context and helpful as you analyze your research and write your text. Start at
the “Reference and Journals” link from the TESC Catalog Page and begin with
- Use the American History and Life
Database to find descriptions of journal articles that may specifically
address your thesis or give you more background information for writing.
- Also look at Academic Search Elite, Wilson,
and ProQuest databases for other references and for full-text articles.
- Remember to check our catalog by title
of the Journal, not the title of the article, when you’re looking to
see if we have a journal article. Example, Richard White’s article “Race
Relations in the American West,” in the American Quarterly won’t be found
if you do a search by the article title. Search American Quarterly and see
where it lives in our library and then go find the article in paper or
online by going to the database the catalog directs you to.
Primary Documents Research:
Primary documents form the
foundation of historical research. A diary, a letter, a government agency
report, a treaty, a photograph, a taped interview, an artifact . . .all provide
clues to history. These sorts of things are usually not available on library
bookshelves. We find them in special collections and archives in libraries,
museums and government records collections. Sometimes these kinds of records
are collected by individual researchers or by families. We’ll be going to some
archives and to the state library a few times during the rest of the quarter.
- Inform yourself before these trips by
visiting the web-links to the Southwest Regional Archives and the
Washington State Library on our program website.
prepared to ask specific questions and come with paper and pencil. Ink is
not allowed in archives and neither are your big backpacks. Only you and a
notebook and a pencil can come in.
- A few
rules of thumb in archives: Keep everything in its original order; only
open one file at a time; take good notes and be sure to write down the
title of the collection, the box number and the folder number or title
when you take notes. Ask if you can make a photocopy and be prepared to
pay 25 cents per page to do so. Bring a digital camera from Media
loan—perhaps a few of you can share one.