Heather Cox Richardson
Research (and this is primarily for American history, especially for students working on nineteenth-century topics):
There are two ways to find a topic for a research paper. The first is to follow up on something that has interested you in a class or a reading. What do you feel isn’t well explained in the books you’ve read? Is there a topic there worth digging around in? Does it resolve itself quickly when you check Wikipedia and a few books? Or is there something we really haven’t thought through in a way that you think makes sense? By the way, there are precious few topics in history that can’t bear a reexamination, so don’t worry that you can’t think of something to research.
The other way to find a topic is to immerse yourself in primary sources and see if a different story emerges than the one we usually tell. There are a number of places you can start to see a new story in history. Your college, university, or public library website can link you directly to Proquest's historical New York Times and the historical Boston Globe. If you’re interested in a particular topic or a particular year this is a good place to go to see what people at the time were saying. The Making of America website at Cornell University and the University of Michigan have huge collections of nineteenth-century books and journals as well as The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion; you can search them for specific topics. Don’t forget Google Books, either—that has an extensive pre-1923 collection—which can give you much information you wouldn’t have thought to look for. If you hit “full view” books, you’ll get those books that are in the public domain, and which you can read on-line in their entirety. The X-roads project at the University of Virginia also has a wide range of material.
The Digital Collections at Harvard have a wide selection of material on-line, including a good collection on the economic lives of American women, another on marriage and family, and another on immigration. The Native American Documents Project at California State University, San Marcos, has good material on Indian history. The American Memory site at the Library of Congress holds much, but it is appallingly organized, so be careful to keep track of where you’ve been—you might not find it again. It’s good on the American West and on African Americans. There are a number of excellent specialty collections at different libraries (Stanford has a collection of dime novels; the Denver Public Library has one on Western photographs), so look around.
The American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara is invaluable for studying presidents because it has official documents of recent presidents; it also has the text of every State of the Union address—which is a great short trip through the highlights of a particular year, since the secretaries of each department write their own sections—and every Inaugural Address. It also has the political platforms of every major political party for each presidential campaign. The Presidential Recordings Program from the Miller Center at the University of Virginia contains recordings of all the White House tapes, as well as transcripts of them. The website A New Nation Votes, based on the Philip J. Lampi collection at the American Antiquarian Society, holds the election returns for every local, state, and national election from 1787 to 1825.
These are good places to start. Read around for awhile and see what interests you. Don’t take notes yet—just keep a brief record of what you find and where you find it. The reason I suggest you start with internet sources is that they are easily searchable and working with them first will cut down your time looking for a topic. Give yourself time to find something you really like and want to know about. There’s not really much point in spending weeks researching something you hate. It’s also unlikely you’ll produce anything anyone wants to read if you hate what you’re doing.
Once you’ve fallen in love with something, the fun really begins. Now you can track down the leads you find in the secondary sources you look up in the library (don’t make the grave error of thinking you can use the internet only—almost every research paper will need to be informed by the secondary works other historians have written, and will need other primary source books and manuscripts that are unavailable on-line). Follow the trail in front of you. Go to the library. Dabble in old newspapers. Go to local libraries or local archives. Use manuscript collections. If you find yourself admiring the work of a certain (living) scholar and wish you could ask him or her for advice, do it. Drop him or her an email. S/he’ll almost certainly answer with helpful information, and if not, who cares?
Let yourself enjoy the process. It may be that your topic changes as you conduct your research. That’s fine. As your research advances, a question will emerge.
That question is the heart of your essay. Your TOPIC might be The Battle at Little Bighorn, but your QUESTION might be: “Why did Custer bring his men into such an untenable military situation?” Many students make the mistake of confusing a topic and a question. Now your research is very directed, and you should take good notes on your sources. ALWAYS put everything you quote directly into quotation marks, and write down the full and correct citation for each source IN YOUR NOTES! (Just memorize correct citation form, it’s easier than reorganizing everything later. The form, including correct punctuation, is: Author, Title (Place of publication: Publisher, Date), pp. XX.) Make notes, too, of questions your research raises. Why was Ulysses S. Grant mad at Custer? Was there a larger struggle going on over Indian policy? Was the army in danger of losing its funding? Was Custer jealous of other commanders? These will be questions your reader will also want to have answered, so keep a list of them somewhere.
As your research advances, you will be able to answer your question (as a student did very successfully a few years ago, suggesting historians had gotten the story wrong until her research). You might have come to believe, from your research, that Custer was upset that he had recently lost President Grant’s favor and was determined to regain his former prominence (as some historians have said). Why do you think that? What information have you dismissed as less convincing than that explanation? Why do you dismiss it? It is fine, by the way, to have concluded that an existing explanation is correct, but you need to be able to demonstrate that you have considered alternative explanations and are siding with a specific one for solid reasons.
By the time your research is done, you should also have an answer to that all-important question: Who cares? Why should we care about Custer’s motivations at Little Big Horn? Well, perhaps they show that generals have to be very careful to assess a junior officer’s mental state before giving unsupervised command. Maybe they suggest that presidents shouldn’t come from the military. Maybe they suggest any number of things that will stay with a reader and inform the way s/he thinks in the future. You may not have to spell this out in the paper—it might be obvious from the way you develop the essay—but make sure you know the answer yourself before you start writing.