How to Research: Know Your Sources

So, you want to take a deeper dive into an historical period, event or person. Or maybe you’ve been assigned to write a history paper for a class. In this age of abundant information even knowing where to start can be intimidating. What is true? What information can you trust? The following guidelines will help you choose the best sources and understand the benefits and potential pitfalls of each kind.


Definition A primary source is an account from someone either personally involved in an event or a witness to it, or in some way was personally acquainted with the subject. These may include first-person or eyewitness accounts like letters, essays, journals, and autobiographies. The report of a Civil War battle by an officer who fought in it would be a primary source.

Pros It’s firsthand knowledge. Primary sources will provide the truest sense of character and historical context since the author is living in the same time and environment.

Cons An author who is too close to the subject might lose some objectivity because he is emotionally colored by his personal connection. This is the case with Seward’s Life of John Quincy Adams which is a wonderful read. But because of his well-deserved admiration for Adams, Seward tends to embellish conversations and events.

Contemporary Secondary

Definition Contemporary secondary sources are items such as newspaper reports or letters from people who might not have been firsthand witnesses but nevertheless, were aware of the subject.

Pros These types of sources help provide corroboration for primary sources and also give context to the time period. For example, Bancroft’s History of the United States relies on various accounts of the same event from different sources to round out a more complete history.

Cons There may be a reliance on hearsay. Hearsay is not permissible as legal evidence and should not be relied on alone for historical narrative.

Bias and agendas have always existed. Much of what is currently wrongly believed about Thomas Jefferson’s religion and morality, is the direct result of newspaper articles printed by Federalist leaning publications that wanted to discredit him during the 1800 presidential election.1

Academic Modern

Definition Academic modern sources would include later books and journal articles by historians who have specialized in a particular subject. These works should only be referenced if they include thorough notes to primary sources, and you have researched the authors.

Pros Materials may have been discovered and/or are accessible now that haven’t been for earlier publications. For example, a biography about famous British naval captain, Edward Pellew, written one hundred years after his death, included letters from a chest full of his papers that were discovered with an acquaintance years after his contemporary biography had been written. The inclusion of these additional primary documents gave a fuller picture of his life and character.

Later sources also provide a retrospective view of an event, after the consequences are evident. For example, the popular reaction to the Missouri Compromise while it was being debated and passed, was broad dismay by Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson who thought it signaled the death of the Union. His opinion eventually cooled, taking a more hopeful, wait-and-see attitude. Looking back from two hundred years later, history has proven his first response was in fact, accurate.

Theodore Roosevelt’s The Naval War of 1812 is another example of a later work proving helpful. Written almost a century after the war, he compares and contrasts earlier narratives, pointing out the inaccuracies of both the British and the American historians, and the bias of the authors, whose patriotic zeal sometimes colored their accounts.

Cons Judgements made are necessarily subjective.

Online Sources

Definition Online sources include digital articles and content from anyone and everyone. Note: many primary and secondary sources are available in digital format online now. Here, we are distinguishing other online content from those source types mentioned above.

Pros Accessibility! Web articles may sometimes provide quick references to names and dates, and subject summaries to launch your research. It is almost never well documented, if at all.

Cons Online content can create circular referencing for which there is no true source. It is easy to find yourself on a merry-go-round of one site quoting another site, quoting another site—none of which is actually backed by primary sources. Example: several websites referenced a 1916 executive order by President Woodrow Wilson requiring the Star-Spangled Banner be played at all military ceremonies.2 Further research revealed that the websites just quoted one another. The order did not appear in any archives and even the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library was unable to confirm that it existed.

Digital sources can disappear even with archival tools such as the Wayback Machine. Always save images or pdfs of your digital sources.

Digital content can also be subtly changed and manipulated without an obvious record. This is known as stealth editing. Publications will regularly change online headlines or portions of their articles without issuing formal retractions or corrections. And online dictionaries will change or update the meanings of words to fit a current narrative, rather than providing a true standard of usage.

Bonus Tips

What do you do with sources that conflict? Go with the earlier or primary source, except in the few exceptions given above.

More is better. Look for confirmation among sources as long as they aren’t just citing one another.

Notes don’t necessarily mean authoritative – Wikipedia is “footnoted” but almost never to a primary source.

Happy hunting! (See our other “How to Research” articles here.)


1 For examples of these character attacks, see David Barton, The Jefferson Lies (Aledo, TX: WallBuilder Press, 2012) and Barton: The American Story: Building the Republic (2024), 118.

2 See, for example, “1931 ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ becomes the Official National Anthem,” This Day in History,, updated March 2, 2021; Andrew Glass, “‘Star-Spangled Banner’ becomes U.S. national anthem, March 3, 1931,” Politico, March 03, 2018.

How to Research: Confirming a Quote

It is so tempting to repost that witty or motivational quote on the pretty picture, only to stop and wonder, “Did Ben Franklin really say that?” We are often asked about confirming quotes attributed to historical figures. Here’s a guide to help you through the process.

  1. Start by searching on platforms like Google Books or Internet Archive, which host extensive collections of books from the last several hundred years. Keep in mind that you may need to try different combinations of words or phrases from the quote during this process.
  2. When you find a list of sources with the quote, prioritize the oldest sources. Remember, you’re looking for primary sources such as the person’s writings or autobiography.
  3. If you successfully confirm the quote using sites such as Google Books or Internet Archive, you’re done! If not, proceed to the next step.
  4. If the initial search through broad collections of books is unsuccessful, conduct a more thorough exploration of the person’s works. You can look for specific online collections or in physical works that may be available at a library. Many writings by American Founding Fathers, for example, are accessible online (refer to our Helpful Links page).
  5. If none of these searches confirm the quote, it’s advisable to refrain from using it until you can verify it at a potential future date.

We hope this information aids your investigation efforts! Explore our other How to Research articles for additional tips.

How to Research: Book Accuracy

Validating a book’s historical accuracy can be challenging, but there are actionable pointers to aid assessment.

Primary Sources

Start by considering the publication date vis-à-vis the historical era discussed. A book written during or shortly after the period in question (within 50 years) holds higher credibility due to its reliance on primary sources – the most reliable historical references. Conversely, modern works addressing distant history warrant closer scrutiny.

A book reliant on primary sources, rather than secondary sources, proves more reliable. Primary sources encompass contemporaneous event-related documents. These may include eyewitness accounts like letters, essays, journals, and autobiographies. In contrast, secondary sources provide non-contemporary summaries of, or insights into, events or people and often rely on other modern authorities. Over-dependence on secondary sources can lead to historical inaccuracies and revisionism.


Inadvertent revisionism is evident in The Search for Christian America. Three scholars concluded that America did not have a Christian founding. But in studying America’s Christian founding, 88% of their sources postdated 1900 and 80% postdated 1950. Relying on citations much later than the Founding Era (1760-1805), caused them to arrive at an errant conclusion, and one much different than if they had consulted primary sources.

Deliberate revisionism is readily seen in The Godless Constitution. Professors Isaac Kramnick and Laurence Moore assert the Founders were atheists, agnostics, and deists aiming for a secular government. This text is a staple of universities and is cited by courts and other professors. However, no footnotes are included, simply this statement, “we have dispensed with the usual scholarly apparatus of footnotes.” So, these professors’ sweeping claims about the Founders’ faith is seen as a great scholarly achievement, but there is not a single reference to primary documents proving that claim. Accurate history definitely necessitates caution with works lacking proper citations.


When dealing with early America, biographies and pre-1900 history works offer less biased insights. They are more likely to be written by contemporaries of the subjects and events, and are not likely colored by modern agendas. Works printed from 1900-1920 have around 75% confidence. But our confidence drops to about 50% for works from 1920-1950, which were heavily influenced by the progressive educational transformation. Modern books are often tainted by historical malpractices,1 excluding those rich in primary source citations. Authors like Mark David Hall, David McCullough, Dumas Malone, Daniel Dreisbach, James Hutson, and Peter Lilliback exemplify this exception.

The good news is that primary sources are easier than ever to locate. Thousands of early books and documents have been digitized and made available via online platforms.2 Many older books are available as reprints through major book outlets. These sources offer direct access to primary documents, reducing dependence on secondary ones. Utilize these resources for reliable research.


1 Examples of these malpractices can be found in WallBuilders’ article “Deconstructionism and the Left.”
2 Check out WallBuilders’ historical reprints, or Helpful Links page to find some of these online resources.

To see additional articles about How to Research, check out the articles posted here, here, and here.

How to Research: Identifying Revisionism & Bias

When delving into historical research about individuals or events, it’s crucial to identify factors that might lead to an inaccurate portrayal. Two major concerns in this realm are revisionism and bias.

Definitions and Goals

Revisionism involves advocating for a reevaluation of established views, theories, or historical events.1 It often seeks to reshape how people perceive history to encourage acceptance of, or to justify, new policies. Bias refers to an inclination towards certain perspectives without logical reasoning; assumptions rooted in a worldview are another factor of bias.2  Modern works often use either or both of these factors, thus requiring careful consideration to avoid adopting an incorrect historical standpoint.

Revisionists achieve their goal of rewriting history by:

  • Minimizing or overlooking aspects of American history they deem politically incorrect, while magnifying those they support.
  • Criticizing historical figures who held opinions they reject.
  • Crafting an illusion of widespread historical approval for the social policies they are attempting to promote.

Identifying Concerns

To identify signs of revisionism or bias in a text, pay attention to its tone, the documents referenced, and the featured individuals. For example, when assessing a book or article on American History, consider the following questions:

  • Is exploration and colonization portrayed solely as driven by greed for land or wealth?
  • Are proponents of religious and moral values depicted as harsh and unyielding?
  • Do the depictions favorably portray other religions while degrading Christianity?
  • Is a concept of traditional family ignored?
  • Does the portrayal overshadow individuals, families, and communities, positioning the government as the sole solution to societal needs?
  • Is there a consistent focus on victimhood, highlighting exploited groups rather than those who positively impacted their culture?
  • Do the books present original historical documents? If so, are they extensively edited or do they offer contextual content?
  • Who are the figures portrayed as heroes? Do they primarily express anger towards an unjust society or government? Are they exclusively modern and secular leaders?

By keeping these considerations in mind, you can better evaluate historical texts and discern potential issues in accuracy and perspective.3


1 “Revisionism,” The Free Dictionary.
2 “Bias,” Merriam-Webster.
3 For more information on this topic and examples of revisionism and bias, see these additional articles from WallBuilders: “Revisionism: How to Identify it in Your Children’s Textbooks;” “God: Missing in Action from American History;” “Confronting Civil War Revisionism: Why the South Went to War.”

To see additional articles about How to Research, check out the articles posted here, here, and here.

How to Research: Getting Started

Researching a topic, person, or even finding specific quotes might feel daunting, but don’t worry! We’ve put together some simple tips to guide you through the process.

  1. Give It Time: Remember, good research takes time. For straightforward tasks like checking a quote, set aside 1-2 hours. For more complex topics, expect to spend 1-2 days, or even longer.
  2. Focus Your Topic: Narrow down your topic. Instead of tackling something broad like “America’s Christian Heritage,” zoom in on a specific angle, such as “America’s Christian Heritage in Colonial Times.” This will help you find more relevant information.
  3. Diversify Your Sources: While sites like Wikipedia or other online encyclopedias are fine as starting points, don’t rely on them. Mix it up by using various sources such as online articles, newspapers, and books to cross-reference and verify information. (Please note: Wikipedia is editable by the public at large, so we recommend using it as a launchpad to help you trace back to primary sources instead of using it as an authority on any given topic.)
  4. Seek Primary Sources: For the most accurate historical info, turn to original sources or works written within about 50 years of the time you’re researching. If you’re reading a newer book with sources listed, it can sometimes help you trace back to more authentic materials. (Remember, your goal is to hear it from the horse’s mouth instead of through the grapevine.)
  5. Review the Pitfalls to Avoid: Understand how to look for book accuracy, and how to identify revisionism and bias before researching a topic. Check out the Just Facts Academy for more information on determining accurate information and other research tips.
  6. Tap into Online Libraries: Websites like Google Books, Hathi Trust, and Internet Archive offer free access to old books that are no longer under copyright. These are great places to find primary sources.

Additionally, here are some resources from WallBuilders that could be used as a great starting point for research… 

  • WallBuilders Online Resources: Discover historical sermons, documents, and articles from our collection that are available online.
  • Recommended Reading List: Dive into our curated list of helpful books that can provide you with historical overviews and a place to begin your research. (For writings of the Founders or other historical resources, see the Helpful Links page. The Recommended Reading List page contains more modern works.) 
  • FAQ: Check out our Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section, where our team addresses common historical queries.
  • Helpful Links: Utilize a compiled list of external sources and organizations that can aid your research.

Remember, research is a journey. Take your time to explore different sources and enjoy the process of uncovering hidden truths and fascinating stories. 

To see additional articles about How to Research, check out the articles posted here, here, here, here and here.

How to Research: Searching on the WallBuilders Website

The first step for any successful research project is to just get started. As you look up more people or events, or confirm quotes by Founding Fathers or others in history, you’ll figure out what works to get you results. To help you in these efforts, we’ve already compiled some resources on How to Research, including other websites to visit.

But what if you want to search on WallBuilders’ website and just can’t figure out how to start? Well, here are some tips to navigate our Resources search.

  1. Go to our Resources section: You can use either the search bar on the top of that page, or scroll down a bit to the one on the left labeled “Search.”
  2. Enter your keywords. Generally, one or two keywords should get you started. However, you can put quotations around a phrase to see any results that exactly match that phrase (i.e., searching Washington might bring up references to Washington DC, or Booker T. Washington, but typing “George Washington” would produce references to the first president).
  3. Utilize the filters found in the Search section to narrow the types of results returned. You do not have to use all the filter options, select only those that fit your search. Filter options include:
    1. Categories: These are the types of resources on our website. They can include articles written by Tim or David Barton; documents such as sermons, proclamations, or letters; and artifacts from our collection. If you’re unsure, you can start off with the “Articles” category.
    2. Topics: These are very general groupings that our resources might fall under. Use this if your search obviously fits into one of the options. If you’re not sure, just skip this filter.
    3. State: This filter only applies to proclamations collected as part of our Christian Heritage Week resources. Many searches won’t require this filter.
    4. Era or Events: These are broad chronological periods that cover American history from Columbus through now. Use this to research a specific person or event. For example: if you were looking for artifacts related to Abraham Lincoln, you might filter to 1860s Civil War.
  4. If you get stuck or the search doesn’t seem to be working, hit the red “Reset” button under the search bar or simply refresh the page.
  5. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, don’t give up! It may just be time to check out our Helpful Links for other great resources to search.

Remember, researching is not always easy, but it is rewarding. We hope our Resources section is helpful in your investigation!