What is the Research, Review, Reflect, Record process?
Since primary sources can be difficult to work with, start with the Research, Review, Reflect, Record process.
This will create a structure for your work and is the best way to begin using primary sources.
- Research a topic using secondary sources
- Review materials for themes drawn from your research
- Reflect on these uncovered themes
- Record your thoughts and list new questions
- …and Repeat, applying the new search terms and questions you recorded above
Start with some background research to find major themes, terms, dates, events, and people to help you understand the sources, form questions, and create your research project.
- Use course materials, books, articles, and your own experiences
- Check out this tutorial: Creating an effective search strategy
Next, search for primary sources related to your topic. Start your search with these sites:
- Collection Guides
Use these to find archival records. These guides show you what primary sources are available.
- Library Search
A great place to search for books and articles.
Digitized versions of collections are found here.
- University Digital Conservancy
An open access institutional repository for the scholarly output of the University.
- Archives and Special Collections
A great place to learn more about searching the collections you are interested in.
- Other places to search
You may find or be assigned to other sources of information. This process will work for these too!
Once you have primary source materials, review them for any major:
- and people
These can be things that you identified while doing background research or new ones that you find in the sources. At first, this may be as simple as skimming the materials and then carefully reading sections related to your project.
After reviewing a source for information related to your topic, reflect on what you did (or did not) see.
Think first. Don’t rush to "answer" your research topic. Instead, be open to what the materials say. This step will help you develop questions and arguments that advance your research. As you work through this process your understanding of your questions will grow, setting you up for success with your project.
Below are some suggested frames for reflection:
What is the format?
- Primary sources’ format or style of communicating may be different from methods you are familiar with, and from current forms and technologies.
- For example, the telegram was an important method of communication that is no longer in use.
- Why would someone want to send a message rapidly?
- How did people adapt to the limited amount of information contained in a telegram?
- Understanding how a particular format was used can provide insight into your topic.
What words are used?
- Often language changes over time. Are synonyms for modern terms used?
- For example, did you know that Mental Hygiene used to be a common term for Mental Health?
- Is the language offensive or outdated?
- How formal or intimate is the language?
- By identifying the terminology used during the period you are researching you will be more successful in finding additional sources related to your topic.
- This is particularly true when searching online. By using the language/word choice learned through your research, you can identify additional materials not found during your initial search.
What observations do you note?
- Do you see information that supports or counters your background research?
- Are there compelling quotes or phrases?
- Who was the intended audience?
- For example, an inter-office memo is intended for employees while an organizational newsletter is intended for the public.
What questions arise?
- What new major themes, terms, dates, events, and people do you see (or not see)?
- For example:
- You find an old letter. Who signed the letter? Who is it addressed to?
- You find meeting minutes. Is there a list of who attended? Who is on a committee? Did an organization arrange the meeting?
- You find a bunch of related documents. Do they keep mentioning the same people or groups?
- Are there connections between other materials?
- Are there gaps in the information? Is there another perspective?
As you reflect on the materials it is important to write down:
- your thoughts, observations, questions
- any new themes, terms, dates, events, and people you encounter
This step can provide you with the building blocks for your project and show you where you need to look next.
Your questions and observations may:
- provide you with your thesis
- highlight additional background reading
- reveal additional search terms
This process is iterative!
Each time you Research, Review, Reflect and Record you deepen your understanding of your topic. You are that much closer to identifying the question that is most interesting to you, and answering that question in a meaningful way.