The ability to conduct literature research is one of the most demanding skills required during a history degree. The challenge is to identify precisely those fifteen to twenty key books and articles which represent the most relevant and up-to-date knowledge on your topic from within library collections and databases which can contain several million books and journals. Strategies for achieving this can be roughly divided into systematic and unsystematic forms of literature research. The quality of your assignment, especially in the case of Proseminar papers, rests to a large degree on whether you can find relevant literature.
Literature research requires you to make use of specific search aids, most of which are available online. Always keep in mind, however, that you should never search for academic literature using ordinary online search engines, no matter how justifiable and useful it can be to use websites such as Google and Wikipedia in everyday life. Although surfing the internet can stimulate new ideas and, in some circumstances, even provide useful literature references, it cannot lay a solid foundation for academic engagement with a historical topic. Unsystematic and/or systematic literature research represent the only reliable means of locating relevant academic literature.
Unsystematic literature research entails using the literature reference lists of a selection of well-known and recently published works (e.g. books from the library, publications on your seminar reading list or recommended by your lecturer or fellow students) as a starting point for identifying further relevant literature. The references provided by each extra publication which you consult can then be used to locate additional literature.
Unsystematic literature research – also known as literature research by the snowball principle – is usually a quick method of compiling a bibliography. It does, however, have its own shortcomings. First, it allows the work of other researchers to dictate your own literature list, thereby not only opening the door to chance but also to the risk that you may overlook important publications which they have ignored. Second, there is a particular danger that you may neglect more recent works, especially when you are using older literature as your initial bibliographic point of departure.
Other useful starting points for unsystematic literature research include:
Systematic literature research involves compiling a bibliography with the help of carefully selected bibliographic aids which are relevant to your topic. By identifying and working your way through these resources, you should be able to draw up a detailed bibliography covering the most important literature.
The most critical step when conducting a systematic search for literature is to decide on which bibliographic aids to consult. Because no bibliography ever contains a complete list of all literature relating to a given topic, it is essential that you make use of a number of different resources. Besides bibliographic databases and library catalogues, selected academic journals can also serve as useful bibliographic aids.
When you employ an unsystematic approach to literature research, you follow in the footsteps of previous publications. When you approach your literature research systematically, however, you take control of your own research. Rather than making yourself dependent on the literature lists of other researchers, who may have overlooked or wilfully ignored key publications, you thus grant yourself the freedom to compile your own selection of literature.
A library catalogue only contains books which are physically present in or accessible through the same library; books which a library (or, where applicable, its partner institutions) has not acquired are thus absent from its catalogue. Extra online services, such as access to digital texts, have expanded the offerings of most catalogues. Often these additional services are only available if you access the catalogue via the university network (or via a VPN from your private computer). However, even catalogues with advanced search functions are still incomplete. Library catalogue searches thus represent only one component of a successful literature research strategy and should be supplemented with other search methods. This applies especially if you are searching for articles in academic journals and edited collections.
A basic search in the main search field, as many library catalogues allow, typically yields far too many results. Most catalogues provide the option of restricting or filtering search results via the so-called faceted search function. An advanced search using other search fields, especially the headword field, can yield better results than a basic search. Every catalogue has its own range of options for advanced searches. Literature research via online catalogues requires practice, especially as headword searches come with their own vagaries. For example, headwords are not always allocated in a consistent manner by different subject experts at the same library, while headword classification systems are liable to change. As a result, you should experiment with various headwords and headword combinations, including alternative spellings. When searching for the title of a book or article, you should also search for alternative versions in other languages. It can also be helpful to look up which headwords are used for the publications which you have already consulted and to conduct further searches with these. The Basel University Library (commonly known by its German abbreviation as the “UB”) maintains a very well-stocked collection: if you cannot find any literature on a particular topic, it is worth asking the library staff whether there really is a gap in the library’s collections, or whether you have merely used the wrong headwords in your search.
Unlike library catalogues, bibliographies are not linked to a specific collection. Bibliographies attempt to provide a complete list of relevant literature for a particular subject area. This task, of course, can never be fully realised, but a quick glance through a few bibliographies still illustrates how comprehensive their coverage can be. If a specialist bibliography is available for your topic, it is always worthwhile using this as a starting point for your literature research. However, as a bibliography does take some time to compile, very recent publications are often not included in even the most up-to-date bibliography. The annual editions of the Bibliography on Swiss History, for example, are usually released some three to four years after the actual year under review.
Journal Repositories and Specialist Portals
Searching in a journal repository (e.g. JSTOR) or on a specialist portal can yield many useful results. However, it is often unclear according to which criteria these platforms select journals and other publications for inclusion in their databases. Legal rather than academic considerations frequently determine which digitised or genuinely digital texts are held in a repository. Moreover, as with library catalogues, the problem of obtaining too many search results is especially common when making use of journal repositories with a full-text search option.
There are various ways of finding the same publication. (See the section on research resources for an overview of bibliographic aids.) A book, for example, can be found via a title or headword search in a library catalogue or by making use of the abstract, title or headword search functions in a bibliographic database. An academic journal article can be located by searching in a bibliography of journals, via a full-text search in a journal repository, or in a bibliographic database.
Whereas bibliographies were generally published in print or as index card catalogues up until the 1990s, bibliographic research is conducted almost exclusively on computers today. Because computer searches are very similar in appearance across a range of different search aids and options – typing a search term into a search box yields a list of results – it is important to give careful consideration to the various types of bibliographic data which can be obtained via different search functions. These can be classified according to the following criteria:
Which collections are being searched? The catalogue of a small library will yield fewer results than a general bibliography or a meta-catalogue covering multiple large collections. It is always worthwhile casting an eye over which collections are covered by a catalogue or database, especially in the case of bibliographies and journal repositories.
By Text Type
Which types of texts can you expect a catalogue or database to find? Books, journal articles, reviews and/or various other text types? Details of the individual articles in an edited collection are usually not included in a library catalogue.
By Search Criteria
Which elements of a text are being searched? Titles, headwords, abstracts or the whole text itself? A full-text search usually yields more (but less precise) results than a title or headword search. Some specialist history databases provide the option of filtering search results by the historical period under investigation (e.g. the Historical Abstracts database).
How Up to Date are These Literature References?
It usually takes a certain period of time after a text has been published for it to be included in a library catalogue. Libraries do not receive brand new publications immediately after their release. As such, very recent works are not included in library catalogues, although they are sometimes listed as being “on order”. Bibliographies, especially those such as the Bibliography on Swiss History which cover a particular reporting period, lag even further behind. Reviews, meanwhile, take time to compile and are published months or even years after the text which they critique. It is not serious if you overlook a recently published book for a Proseminar paper; indeed, students are not expected to buy secondary literature for the purposes of a Proseminar paper. Recently published articles and reviews, however, should still be taken into account to a certain extent. You should therefore consult the most recent editions (i.e. those published in the last three or four years) of academic journals which you believe could contain articles or reviews pertaining to your topic. The current edition of a wide variety of journals is always available in unbound form in the respective reading rooms at the History Department library and at the UB. Many German-language journals also publish their tables of contents on the H-Soz-Kult website.
It makes no sense to spend four weeks conducting systematic literature research for a Proseminar paper before you begin actually reading the texts which you have found. Keep in mind the following basic rule: the longer your research assignment is and the more time you have available to complete it, the more systematic your literature research should be.
Unsystematic literature research thus forms the standard approach for students writing a Proseminar paper, but even here this strategy should be supplemented with some systematic elements. This will allow you to compile a more autonomous literature list and thus to approach your topic from a more independent perspective. The systematic elements of literature research are more important when it comes to writing a master’s thesis – a good reason to practice these when writing a Proseminar paper! Above all, always consult a range of different bibliographic resources, as no single bibliography can ever provide a complete list of literature.
You can only conduct literature research when you already know something about the topic which you are researching. This also means that you will need to carry out further literature research as you work your way through the different stages of the research and writing process and your knowledge of your topic becomes more advanced. As you begin your research, first familiarise yourself with the relevant introductory knowledge. This will put you in a position to compile an initial reading list with which you can work your way deeper into your topic. After you have read these texts, a further round of literature research should follow during which you should compile a more comprehensive literature list (i.e. the works which you will read during your main reading phase). Once you have moved on to the writing stage, new questions may arise which could require you to conduct further phases of targeted literature research.
In order to carry out your literature research in the most confident, efficient and time-effective manner, you need to have a feel for the most important specialist encyclopaedias, handbooks, academic journals, bibliographies and other research resources. The introductory literature in the handbook section of the History Department library (call number section HB 6) includes numerous useful guides to literature research and other key skills of the discipline.
Literature research also involves making a decision about which literature to consult and which references and search results to ignore. In this regard, it helps to have a precisely defined research topic. Also helpful is to keep a regularly updated list of relevant-sounding texts which you have already deemed unnecessary to read.
Literature research for a (Pro)Seminar paper should ideally adhere to the following sequence:
1. Acquire an initial overview of your topic
- Consult encyclopaedias, handbooks and specialist historical dictionaries (e.g. Encyclopedia of the Medieval World, The Cambridge History of South Africa, The Palgrave Dictionary of Transnational History)
- Go through any relevant readings which are already available without a search, e.g. texts on your seminar reading list or which you have already consulted in preparation for a presentation, reading recommendations from your lecturer, etc.
These initial readings should provide you with a list of key topics, headwords and authors which you can use as a point of departure for subsequent searches.
2. First phase of literature research
Search for literature in:
- 5-6 academic journals (consult recent editions from the last 3 to 4 years; begin by studying the current edition online or in the History Department library or UB reading rooms)
- 2-3 bibliographies or bibliographic databases (e.g. International Bibliography of Periodical Literature, Historical Abstracts)
3. Second phase of literature research
After working your way through your initial reading list, your next step should be to compile a more comprehensive list of literature. (This can also be done during your initial reading using the snowball method.) Your introductory reading should have furnished you with a list of additional topics for which you can now conduct a targeted literature search. More journals and bibliographies can be added to your list of bibliographic aids as you come across them. Further literature research may also be required during the writing phase as and when any specific questions or issues arise.
Although most bibliographic aids – and even much secondary literature itself – can now be accessed digitally, the basics of literature research have not changed: academic texts continue to be published in a variety of forms, and there remains no single location where all texts can be found. Online bibliographies and bibliographic databases, however, have negated the effects of physical distance. As a result, paths into the tangle of research literature which were previously subject to a variety of limitations are now accessible almost at will. This places its own new demands on researchers: it may sound trivial, but the huge range of literature which is now available can appear so vast and confusing that it is worthwhile paying attention to where a library book or journal actually comes from. In a previous era, conducting literature research for an assignment would have first required you to visit the UB, where you would have looked up bibliographic references in the library’s card catalogue or in the volumes of the International Bibliography of Periodical Literature (known by its German abbreviation as the IBZ), before ultimately obtaining a call number with which to locate a printed edition of a book or journal on the library’s shelves. Today, none of these steps is necessary, and the entire ordering process can be completed online. Indeed, in some cases, whole publications are even available online. As such, the internet has sped up academic research and made it easier to conduct. There is, however, a disadvantage to these supposedly more efficient and standardised research methods in that you may find yourself asking in a confused tone: “What am I looking at now? A library catalogue, an online database, a digital article repository, or just some other website?”