One reference manual I have used contains this helpful statement: “Students in pursuit of bibliographies resemble dogs chasing sports cars.” I know you want to know where they’re going with that…
University Press Books
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:
1) The author’s authority, training, and credentials;
2) The book’s intended audience and intellectual purpose;
3) The accuracy, completeness, and recentness of the research;
4) 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.
Finding Secondary Sources
Google Scholar — Google Scholar indexes many BUT NOT ALL scholarly journals and books. Like JSTOR or Project Muse, you should use it knowing that it has limitations. However, it has one very nice feature. It tells you how many other scholars in its database have cited a particular book or article, and then lets you look at all of those citations. This is a great way to get a sense for how a field has developed over time because you can track the influence of particular works. You can also quickly identify works on similar topics.
Amazon.com — While this is hardly a scholarly method, looking at amazon is the first thing I do when researching a new topic. I find it especially helpful to look at the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought…” section. For example, if you were to search for Mary Dudziak’s Cold War Civil Rights, the “Customers Who Bought This…” section will immediately give you the handful of other important books on the same topic (including Race Against Empire, Eyes off the Prize, and The Cold War and the Color Line). Be sure to scroll through the list. I recommend opening interesting looking books in a new tab [right click, “open link in new tab”] so that you don’t lose track of where you were scrolling. Be sure to scroll through the “Customers Who Bought This…” section for each of the new books you identify. By the time you have looked through the “Customers Who Bought This…” for each of these books, you should have compiled a substantial bibliography on your topic. Note that amazon has a zotero link in the address bar so you can save these citations. Don’t buy them. Save them. Also, DO NOT USE AMAZON TO LOCATE PRIMARY SOURCES.
America: History and Life should be your starting place for finding secondary source articles. Be sure to limit your search to peer-reviewed articles only because America: History and Life includes non-peer-reviewed sources. This is an index, not a full-text database. You will thus only be searching the title, author, subject terms, and abstract (if there is one). You will also have to look outside of the database to find the actual articles.
JSTOR is also useful, but not exhaustive. It is a full-text database so you can search not only the citation information, but also the content of the articles. It has a several year embargo, so the most recent scholarship will not be there. Remember to set the dates so that you are finding secondary sources (since JSTOR can also be used to find primary sources).
Chicago Humanities Quick Citation Guide — Note that there are two separate formats, one for footnotes and one for bibliography. Chose the correct format for the assignment.
Zotero — This is a free add-on for the Mozilla Firefox web browser. It makes it very easy to save, organize, and generate citations for research materials. It was developed by and for historians at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. Here is a quick start guide. I recommend figuring this out right away, so that as you search for books you can easily save them and generate a bibliography.