Tips on locating SECONDARY SOURCES

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. — 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.

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Do you Eat Sugar?

Since I write about the history of sweets (and I have a M.S. in nutrition), people sometimes ask me whether or not I eat sugar. I do. People also ask me whether I think sugar is really bad for us. I do. Go figure.

In the period that I research (1900s-1930s) most people thought that sugar was a healthful source of calories. While there had always been naysayers, they were mostly considered quacks. In the 1930s a few dentists and a new generation of quacks renewed the panic about sugar, which had dwindled since the 19th century. Weston Price, for example, was a dentist who traveled the world examining people’s teeth and bone structure. He concluded that sugar and wheat were destroying civilization, an insight that I write about in my book (which is tentatively titled Sweetness and Civilization).

Price has recently gained a number of new adherents, and has achieved a cult-like status, which I find a bit odd given what I know about him. Popularized by cookbook author Sally Fallon, Price’s followers advocate eating a diet of grass-fed meats and dairy and eliminating all processed food including soy, sugar, and most wheat. They suggest fermenting fruits and vegetables. The Weston Price Foundation publishes a lot of information about this philosophy. The front page of the website shows an attractive family with the caption, “They’re happy because they eat butter.” Fair enough.

In terms of contemporary discussions of the place that sugar ought to have in our diets, the Weston Price folks represent one variant of the extreme anti-sugar position. Another vocal proponent of this view is Gary Taubes. He has written several books and a number of articles for the popular press. Here are two recent articles by him from reputable publications.

Gary Taubes, “Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies,” Mother Jones, November/December 2012,

Gary Taubes, “Is Sugar Toxic?,” The New York Times Magazine, April 13, 2011,

In the second article he discusses research by Robert Lustig, another prominent anti-sugar advocate. Lustig is a pediatric neuroendocrinologist who researches diabetes in children. Here is a radio interview and excerpt from his book, Fat Chance, in which he argues that one’s weight does not matter as much as what one eats. Sugar in all forms, he argues, messes with the body’s ability to regulate itself.

Both Taubes and Lustig argue that it doesn’t matter what kind of sugar–sucrose is just as bad as high fructose corn syrup. There is another camp that singles out HFCS as especially pernicious. One early proponent of this view was food journalist Michael Pollan. He points out that HFCS has become ubiquitous in our food supply since the 1970s, thanks to federal subsidies.

“When a Crop Becomes King,” The New York Times, July 19, 2002,


Pollan is not a nutritionist, but his ideas seem to have stimulated nutrition researchers to look more closely at whether HFCS functions differently in the body than other types of sweeteners. The corn industry has also responded by sponsoring a lot of research to disprove this hypothesis. Whether or not HFCS is metabolized differently, researchers have shown that it does stimulate appetite differently.  And geographer Julie Guthman is very critical of Pollan’s elitist view of the American diet. See, for example,

Julie Guthman, “The Food Police: Why Michael Pollan Makes Me Want to Eat Cheetos,” Utne Reader, February 2008,


On the other hand, many nutrition researchers, including NYU’s Marion Nestle, argue that energy balance is the most important factor in maintaining a healthy weight (and controlling related health problems). An expert in the politics of food, she says that calories in and calories out matter more than where those calories come from. Thus, sugar is fine in moderation. Butter is fine in moderation. Etc., The problem comes when people super-size their portions while leading sedentary lifestyles. Here  is a list of Nestle’s many publications.

Julie Guthman criticizes much of this research, and questions the extent to which there even is an obesity “epidemic.” She summarizes recent research pointing not towards food as the cause for metabolic changes among Americans, but instead to endocrine disrupting chemicals. Here is a New York Times Opinion piece where she presents this view.

Julie Guthman, “Enough With the Calorie Counting! – Room for Debate,” The New York Times, July 25, 2011,


Not sure what to eat after reading all of this? Me neither!

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A Humble Experiment in Data Mining


Search results for “sugar tariff” from historical newspapers, by date. The tallest bar is 1920-1929.

A few years back the Proquest database folks implemented a nice feature in their search results. In the right-hand column there’s a bar graph showing the number of hits by date for your search term. It’s a search facet, so you can zoom in on a particular decade and it shows you a breakdown by year. I’ve found this feature to be instructive, especially in teaching, because it’s an easy, visual way to chart the significance of some phenomenon (say, like “sugar tariffs”). Out of curiosity, I wanted to know how hard it would be to create such a bar graph for an online archive that did not automatically generate one. My in-house digital humanities consultant sat down with me yesterday to experiment with this. We used Cornell University’s HEARTH, a fabulous online archive of home economics, nutrition, dentistry, and random other topics dating from the 1850s through the 1950s. From an initial search for “sugar,” we got 149847 matches in 4146 records. After a few hours of playing around, this is what we came up with:


Hits Per Year for “Sugar” in the HEARTH Database (click to enlarge). Note that it has the same general shape as the newspaper results for “sugar tariff,” both peaking in the 1910s and 1920s.

I find it quite fascinating (and not at all surprising) to see the peak in hits between 1913 and the mid-1920s, at about the same time and pace as simultaneous debates about sugar tariffs. People in those years cared a lot more about tariffs than people do now. People didn’t glaze over at the mere mention of the t word. The HEARTH archive features nutrition, etiquette, and health books and magazines, sources which do not in themselves discuss the tariff or sugar politics writ large. But these findings offer a kind of confirmation to my hunch that  people talked a lot more about eating sugar at the same time that they had heated debates about the sugar tariff in the 1910s and 1920s.

So how did we make this graph? It may be that some DH wunderkind has some different tools up their sleeves to accomplish this, but here’s our homemade technique.

1. We tinkered with the url from the search results so that all of the records for the “sugar” search showed up on one page. The very end of the unwieldy url goes like this: start=1;size=25 We changed it so that it read start=1;size=5000 It coughed up the results relatively quickly.

2. We copy pasted the results into notepad ++ and went through a number of steps to clean up the data. With its nice a find/replace function, notepad ++ is a great tool for systematically converting/cleaning up text. We essentially removed all text, leaving only the numbers. We did this slowly, one step at a time, until all that was left were pairs of numbers, tab-separated like this:

1902    26
1902    26
1919    12
1921    1
1917    100
1904    1
1919    105

etc., The first number is the year, the second number is the number of hits. Each pair represents one book or magazine that had hits for “sugar.” Thus, as you can see, there were multiple lines for each year. We condensed these in the next step.

3. We copy pasted this list into a google docs spreadsheet. I can’t remember exactly what I did to make it do this, but I did some magical step that merged together all of the hits where the year matched. (update: the magical step may have been converting it to a pivot chart). I tried to make a nice bar graph in google docs, but I couldn’t figure out how to make it label the axes properly. So I ended up cutting and pasting the data into Excel to make the chart. The hardest part was saving the chart out.

Not fancy, and somewhat labor intensive. But mildly entertaining for a Saturday afternoon!

If you have other ideas about how to do this, please feel free to drop us a line.

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