Higher Education Libraries in your PERsonal history reSearch

Defining your research question

This tutorial should help you to think about coming up with an explicit research question. Putting in the effort of writing down your research question pays dividends.

It's useful to put your research question in writing even before you start locating your sources. You'll have a succinct description of your project that will help archivists to help you. Writing down your research question, or even explaining it to friends helps you come to a better understanding of what it is you are trying to research. Typically you will find that very experienced researchers have a very clear and explicit idea of what it is they're trying to research.

Think about the parameters of your investigation -- subjects, geographical areas, dates etc. Most of the material in any particular collection is unlikely to be of interest to you personally, so it's as useful to be able to exclude batches of records from your research as it is to include them.

Types of research questions

Research questions can be of the simple 'yes or no' sort:

…or they can be more open ended:

Your historical research may well take unforeseen turns as you're inspired by and react to the sources you encounter. Remember to review your research question every so often and update it if necessary.

What makes a good research question?

Typically experienced researchers develop very specific, but very open ended research questions. For example, a family history researcher knows that his family were bakers for several generations, but in the mid 1800s they gave up the family business and migrated. His research question was 'why did they do that? What social conditions caused the move?' To answer the question he researched the history of baking and bakeries to see if there was some change in the economics of baking in the mid 1800s that made it impossible for his family to make their living as bakers. This research topic -- bakery in the mid 1800s -- is very narrow, but is very open ended as it can bring in all sorts of interesting information.

A good research question is typically narrow, because this means that you have a limited topic to research. If your research topic is very broad, for example you're interested in the Crimean War, the amount of information you'll be able to find will be overwhelming and you'll never really feel on top of the subject. However, if your topic is also open ended, this means that there is still lots of interesting information to find which will keep you interested.

Developing a good research question is a matter of luck as much as skill, but one of the main ways to help you develop your question is talking to other researchers, maybe by joining a local or family history group, or by talking to archivists who will have helped other researchers who are interested in the same sorts of things you are.

The next tutorial is Identifying useful archives.


The Helpers system is developed as part of the Accessing our Archival and Manuscript Heritage project, at Senate House Library, University of London, funded by the Laser Foundation and the EARL Consortium. Please see the project website for further details.