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American Legal History: Doing History: Getting Started

Resources to support students writing seminar papers using primary sources for Professor Jarvis's American Legal History course, Winter 2011


Welcome! This CampusGuide is a collection of resources for Professor Jarvis's American Legal History course, for Fall 2013.

You can find links to websites on doing history, examples of historiography (writing about history) done using primary sources (materials produced or compiled by the historical subjects themselves: documents, diaries, newspapers, census data, and so forth), and resources for finding primary sources themselves.

What is this?

This is the main page of my American Legal History pathfinder. The other pages have descriptions of and links to resources for doing history: Books, Examples, and Websites (subpages of the Doing History page); Examples; Resources; and pages on finding articles to guide and support your historical research, writing history, and on citing your sources.

Where do I Start?

I suggest you start here. Look at the "Doing History" page and its subpages. Don't read every resource, but look at some of them, just to be aware of what's out there. Pick an example or two, and read it. Pay attention to:

  • The structure of the article or book
  • The evidence the author presents
  • The arguments the author makes
  • And, most importantly, how the evidence supports (or doesn't support) the argument.

The best way to learn how to do history is by looking at how others have done it. Do not reinvent the wheel (this is a lesson you can, and should, carry with you into the practice of law).

And finally, ask: Professor Jarvis, me, your other professors, subject-area experts, the librarians or archivists at any historical organization you contact. Brainstorming and discussing ideas can help you at any and every stage of working on any research project.

A Note about Sources

Generally speaking, there are two types of historical sources, primary and secondary.

To quote the late Professor John R. Moore (, they are:

Primary Source: a record created by a person with firsthand knowledge of the event or person reported on.

Secondary Source: a record created by a person who used primary sources to report on the person or event under study.

Examples of primary sources are census data, most newspaper and magazine articles (ones that report on an event based on eyewitness accounts), documents, diaries, and transcripts.

Examples of secondary sources are historical monographs (long articles or books written about a particular subject), articles in journals or law reviews, and some newspaper and magazine articles (ones that report on trends or ideas by quoting experts rather than eyewitnesses).

A case is a primary source, as the judge (or in English or early American law, the case reporter) did have firsthand knowledge of the event or person reported on as presented in the courtroom.

Law review and journal articles are secondary sources, however, as (except in rare situations as where a transcript of a speech or colloquium presentation is published) they are reports compiled from (and with citations to) primary sources and other secondary sources.

A Note about Google and the Web

Google, its younger sibling Google Scholar, and even Wikipedia, can be very useful -- if used correctly.

All three are merely finding tools. What you do with the information -- how you assess and analyze it -- is your responsibility. You are liable if you don't use the information you find properly. Google can find interesting websites and collections of primary sources, Google Scholar is an excellent way to find academic journal articles, and Wikipedia has a lot of information patiently gathered by many interested people.

The question then becomes "What did you find? How do you know it's any good? What are you going to do with it?" Wikipedia is at its most useful when you read (carefully and critically) what it says, and you then look at the authoritative sources it cites. Then, use those sources -- not Wikipedia itself.

The "Evaluating Websites" chart on the "Historical Sources -- Websites" page of this pathfinder is a good guide; follow it and you won't go far wrong. The Alvin Sherman Library, NSU's main library, has an excellent webpage called "Library Help -- Evaluating Web Resources" that you should read if you have any doubt that a website you are looking at could be a problem. Both of these last two resources can be used as a guideline for evaluating any resource.

Professor Jarvis

Professor Robert Jarvis

Your instructor, Professor Robert M. Jarvis (picture above), has some important documents -- materials you are responsible for reading -- on his faculty courses webpage.

Another good place to start