**This post is part of a series on identifying secondary sources, including Tips on Locating Secondary Sources and The Seed of a Good Bibliography and Why you should think twice before you read a book that’s more than 25 years old… Be sure to read those posts, too.
My expectation is usually that student use secondary sources that are scholarly, peer-reviewed, and published by a university or other academic press. What is it about a university press that makes a book so special? The major criteria that historians use to judge the reliability of a scholarly, secondary source are:
- The author’s authority, training, and credentials;
- The book’s intended audience and intellectual purpose;
- The accuracy, completeness, and recentness of the research;
- The thoroughness of the book’s footnotes, documentation, and supporting materials.
University presses specialize in producing books that meet these criteria in particular ways. University presses rarely publish books by non-professional historians who do not hold academic professorships, they are generally intended for scholarly audiences, they put the books through rigorous peer-review to assure that the research is accurate and as complete as is reasonable, and they allow (encourage, even) footnotes and bibliographies. Thus, if you choose a book published by a university press (especially a well-reputed one), you have saved yourself much of the work of deciding whether the book is reliable and scholarly. The university press editors already did that work for you. Excellent university presses in modern U.S. history include: Harvard, Princeton, University of California, Duke, Oxford, Cambridge, and the University of North Carolina, among many, many others.
This is not to say, though, that scholarly, professional historians with university professorships do not occasionally choose to publish their research with non-university presses. Indeed, some of the most important works in the field have been published by Vintage, Hill & Wang, Penguin, and Picador, among others. There is something to be said for reaching a broader audience, even if you have to give up footnotes and arcane prose to do so.
And there are a few presses that do not have “university” in the title but that do publish peer-reviewed scholarly work. These include Rowman Littlefield, Palgrave, Greenwood, Basic Books, Routledge. These books are fine to use.
There is no easy way to limit your search to only university press books. You should get in the habit of checking the publisher for every book you look at. If you are unsure about whether a book is appropriate, ask!