How to Read a Secondary Source
A big part of your work in college-level history courses consists of reading scholarly books and articles. Often you will also be required to evaluate, in writing and at some length, what you have read. Although this can seem pretty overwhelming at first, it's not so difficult -- if you ask yourself the right questions as you go along. (Check out How to Read a Primary Source too!)
So what are the right questions?
The answers will vary from course to course and instructor to instructor, but you can at least begin by thinking of the following:
- Thesis What is the author trying to say?
- Evidence How does the author support his or her thesis?
- Credibility Is the thesis persuasive?
- Historiography How does the thesis relate to what others have said on the same subject?
You don't have to answer all of these questions in this order. Just by keeping them in mind, however -- remember the acronym TECH -- your understanding of what you are reading will be improved. Plus, you'll be in a better position to write up your ideas when you're done.
Every book or article has a point to make, which we call its thesis or argument. Sometimes the author will spell this out clearly in an introduction or preface; sometimes you have to figure it out. Often, too, there will be a major thesis as well as one or more minor theses -- smaller points that the author makes along the way. Get in the habit of making notes while you read: ideally, when you're done you should be able to summarize the main points in a sentence or two.
NOTE: don't confuse the thesis with the subject or topic. For example, you'll have no trouble figuring out the subject of Betty Wood's The Origins of American Slavery. Her thesis -- how she explains the shift to slave labor in the colonies -- needs to be dug out of the text.
Historians attempt to back up their arguments with facts. As you read, think about the kind of evidence that the author uses -- newspapers? private correspondence? census data? judicial procedings? speeches? and so on. This will require you to read footnotes, endnotes, and bibliographies. Then you must consider whether the evidence put forward is appropriate and adequate to support the author's argument.
At some point you have to decide whether or not you are convinced by the author's argument and evidence -- whether the argument makes sense and whether the evidence adds up. The author's style is an important consideration: good, clear writing is more always persuasive than bad writing.
Think of history as an ongoing conversation about what happened in the past, and why. Because, the book or article you are reading is a contribution to that conversation, you need to be aware of how it agrees or disagrees with what has already been said on the subject. Is the author making a point never made before? challenging an interpretation put forward by other historians? adding weight to an established interpretation? etc. You may not always know the answer to these questions -- this might be the first book or article you ever read on the subject -- but often you can figure out the answer by scrutinizing the author's references and reading between the lines.