Dickinson College / Gilder Lehrman Institute

A Historical Research “How To”

I was very impressed by the highly recommended, student film on Henry Spradley.  I admire this film for two reasons. One, for the quality of the storytelling, and two, for the way in which it documents the realities and rewards of persistent research.

1. Telling a compelling story in historical context

I teach freshmen and sophomore history students in Chicago, Illinois.  Each year our students, at all grade levels, are required to do a Chicago Metro History Fair project.  This project takes a lot of time and effort during the first Semester, and most of the laborious work is done outside of class.  In the end, students produce either a paper, exhibit, documentary, or performance.  Seventy-Five percent will choose to do an exhibit and several will do papers, but only a small handful will attempt to create a documentary.  Some will choose a documentary because they have experience with iMovie (or other programs).  A few of them are even good at it. But where many of them struggle is making the video compelling to watch, while still being true to the historical content and overall purpose of the project.

 2. The rewards of Research

Does it sound silly to say I miss my college library?  I miss the feeling of having the world at my fingertips and instant access to countless databases. Research seems easy there.  I think avoiding the dangers of  search vs. research becomes easier with access to the right tools.  I take my students to library or computer lab to show them student-friendly online databases.  I harp on the jewels that can be found at local libraries, and try to set them up with a visit to the archives of the Chicago History Museum.  I try to tell myself that I’m helping them “research”.  I know that probably all go home and just do a simple Google “search” on their computers.


Mind Maps of the Civil War


Civil War Diaries and Local History


  1. mike kleiner

    Ahhhhhhhhhh! I’m often tempted to enroll in a class just for library access. Our public library doesn’t subscribe to the databases and journals of the history and poli sci worlds. It’s so hard to just do independent research… I can’t spend $40 to print a 20-page pdf article, no matter how good it is. My most recent grad paper was 22 pages and 30 references. How much would that have cost?

    • janeapplebee

      Yes, I hate that too. Sometimes you can find the same articles for free in other places. Do you know, is there a trend either toward or away from subscription based research databases? Seems like I find more publicly available stuff these days than used to be the case. I would certainly like to live in an opensource world.

  2. Mike Kleiner

    Google scholar is ok, but mostly for following paper trails. The juiciest, most obscure journals need to sell subscriptions to universities to stay afloat. (That and the beer money they make from the eleven of us who aren’t at university and still want to read them.)

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