Website Wednesdays: How to Read a Secondary Source


How to Read a Secondary Source

All college students are assigned a lot of reading. It is part of the job. History majors, in particular, suffer from a mountain of books and articles. Depending on the class, a large part of this reading will be secondary source books and articles. Patrick Rael of Bowdoin College put together a helpful list for how to read such history books and articles. Although he goes into more depth, the basic points are:

1) Read the title and table of contents. This information will tell you what the book is about and the general structure of the text.

2) Approach a reading “from the outside in.” Read the introduction and conclusion, which should help you find the author’s thesis. Also, in the introduction should be a more detailed discussion of text’s structure in relation to the author’s argument. Next, read chapters and article sections “from the outside in.” Read the first and last couple of paragraphs of a chapter or section. This approach should allow you to quickly gain insight into the major themes and sub-arguments of the text.

3) Only now should you read the text, but remember it is not a novel. You are not reading a classic of English Literature on a rainy Sunday. Not every word and sentence are of vital importance. You need to read actively, focus on following the author’s thesis through their topic sentences, evaluate their evidence for this thesis, and mark a few select areas that seem pertinent to the author’s argument.

For more information on how to read history secondary sources, I head to the How to Read a Secondary Source section of Purdue University’s excellent Reading, Writing, and Researching for History: A Guide for College Students by Patrick Rael.

Best, Dr. Ferdinando


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