What does a historical research project entail?


Have you been pondering your past or your family? Thinking about an old rumor floating around that you don’t know the source of? A burning question that you haven’t been able to let go? If so, you may have a historical research project on your hands.

The problem is, many people aren’t sure where to start when it comes to historical research. A do it yourself project doesn’t have to be overwhelming. With a little bit of prep work and some dedication, you can solve your own history mystery.

While planning is an important part of any research project, you also want to be flexible. Follow unexpected leads when they come up. Get lost down the rabbit hole. Sometimes just reading more information leads you to new and better things that you might not have found otherwise.

  1. Why are you conducting this research? The first thing you need to know is… what you want to know! Why are you doing the project? What do you hope to find out? Sometimes the answer to this question is easy, but sometimes it’s not. Maybe you’ve stumbled across a primary source such as an old diary or batch of letters and you want to know more. Make a list of the questions you want answered.
  1. What has already been done? Are you building on someone else’s research, or starting fresh? You don’t want to reinvent the wheel, so it’s always a good idea to see what has already been done. If you’re working on a family history project, ask around to see if other family members have already started research. Ask if they will share what they’ve found. For other research projects, search on variations of your question to see if someone else has already started working on it. That does not mean you should not pursue your project
  1. What does your project look like overall? What is the general look of the project? How big or small will the project be? What are the big goals that you hope to accomplish?
  1. What do you want the end product to look like? What is your final result going to look like? What do you want to hold in your hands when you are done with your project? Your end goal will ultimately determine what items you look at during your research. Do you want to write a book, create a photograph collection, edit a collection of related papers, write teaching materials, or create a film? Keep your goal in mind when looking at primary and secondary sources.


  1. What or who do you need to complete your research? What do you need to complete your research? Other than the basics – such as pencil and paper – think about things that you might need. A scanner? You’ll want to have high quality scans of pictures and documents if you plan to print them out later. Library cards or subscriptions to various libraries and online search sites are useful. Keep in mind, however, that not all online libraries or databases require a subscription/card. Will you be talking to people, asking questions about the time or place you are researching?
  1. How long will your project take? Estimate how long it will take you to review the sources needed to find your answers. Then add about 40% more, because it will always take longer than you think! Do you want to spend that much time on your project? If not, you’ll need to reevaluate your question and amend your plan, or outsource your research.
  1. How much will it cost? Estimate the costs of your research project. Include the cost of equipment you must acquire, telephone and internet fees, user fees for libraries and subscriptions, photocopies, and meals and travel. You’ll also want to include any fees you pay to others for their services, including researchers, transcribers and other assistants.
  1. How will you fund your project? How are you going to fund you project? Will you pay expenses and fees out of pocket, or are you looking for outside funding? Grants require forms to be filled out, deadlines to meet, and specific timelines and documentation that you should be aware of. Prepare contingency plans for anticipated grant money in case funding falls through.
  1. Conduct background research. Conduct background research on the sources you find. Verify them. Learn as much as you can about the source, including the time and place from which it was written. Determine if your sources are valid before proceeding.


  1. Conduct primary source research. Dive into your source documents, such as vintage books, journals and diaries, letters, published papers, newspapers and other items. Search for your keywords in the documents, as well as similar words. Be careful when using OCR documents, as misspellings can creep in easily.
  1. Review your progress and project. Periodically review your progress in terms of time and budget. Are you where you need to be at this point? Are there things that need to be done but haven’t been? Amend your original plan if needed. Take into consideration the sources you have or have not found, and their impact on your plan. Consider your budget – have you run out of money? Consider your commitment to the project. Has your interest grown or decreased? Do you need to outsource part of the work?
  1. Cite everything. Historical research is built on citations. And no matter what your project looks like, you are conducting historical research. Citations are the proof that you have found information that answers your question. At the very least, include enough citation information that you can find the original document again at a later time.
  1. Evaluate your research findings. What does your research look like at this point? Have you answered your question, found what you were looking for? While it can be useful to get someone else’s opinion at this point, it is not necessary. Regardless of what others think, it is ultimately your project, so be as thorough as you feel is necessary. Decide if you need to do more research, or if you can move forward with your project.
  1. Create an end product. Organize and present your results. You can create a bound book, paperback book, or an unbound manuscript. Photographs can be presented in photo book format. You can make films, videos, or other recordings. Your end product should make you happy, and you can share it with friends, family, and other people.
  1. How to store your project and sources. Store your primary sources (or copies of them) using archival storage materials and conditions. Avoid dust, dirt, excessive handling, damp, acidic or corrosive environments. Keep two copies of everything, stored in different locations. Ask friends, family, and local organizations if they want copies of your research. Share freely!

Completing a historical research project can be a large or small undertaking, depending on what your question is and how you plan to carry out the project. There are many decisions that go into planning and completing a project, but this is a reasonable summary to get you started.

What are you working on? Leave a message in the comments to share your current project.
My name is Marsanne Petty, and it might be a sin… but I’m a researcher through and through. I chase obscure topics into the end of oblivion and compile what I find for all to read. Sometimes my family thinks I’m crazy, but my dogs are good with it. If you want to follow me down the rabbit hole, check out my other stuff here. If you want some great oddities in your own mailbox, subscribe at The Southern Sage.


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