Writing A History dissertation
In preparing for a final-year History dissertation you need to bear in mind, firstly, that this is a 9, 000 word essay and therefore a substantial piece of work (it is after all, a quarter of your assessed work for the year), and secondly, that to do it justice you need to give adequate time to think about your topic, the approach you intend to adopt, the sources you might use, and the way in which the dissertation is going to be structured.
Researching a Dissertation
Your dissertation supervisor should be able to help you with this, once you have decided on a suitable topic and approach. You need to bear in mind that both secondary and primary materials are likely to be involved.
Secondary sources are published (essentially academic) works – articles in journals, essays in edited collections, research monographs and so on. You will need to use these to give context to your topic, to aid you in framing your research questions, your introduction and conclusion. The historiography of your topic is likely to be a significant part of the dissertation and this will come from the secondary literature.
Primary source materials are far more varied. Some of you will be looking at a set of them in connection with your Special Subject; you may also have encountered examples elsewhere in your History modules. Primary sources might include: newspapers, memoirs, correspondence (published and unpublished), Parliamentary Papers, archival records relating to organizations and institutions (the Modern Records Centre on campus has examples of these which you can access via the University of Warwick Library website), literary texts (such as novels and plays), early modern political and religious tracts, contemporary medical texts, or oral and visual source materials (interviews, photographs, paintings etc.).
Some of you will carry out interviews, and thus engage in oral history. A recorded or transcribed interview can be considered as a primary resource - in this case you are creating your own archive. Before starting an interview, you should get permission from the person involved, see whether they mind being recorded or notes being taken, and ask whether they have any objection to being named in your dissertation. You should be very scrupulous in this respect. In a few cases, such work involves dealing with sensitive issues. If this is the case, there is an issue of what is known as the ethics of research. You should not do anything that will have a detrimental impact on anyone whom you are interviewing. If you feel that your work is going to be sensitive in this sort of way, you must discuss it with your supervisor beforehand and get appropriate advice. If you decide that this is the case, you should fill out an Undergraduate Research Ethics Form.
When you come to draw up the bibliography at the end of your dissertation you should divide your entries between primary and secondary sources (most academic books do this, so look at how a couple of historians have done it – but keep it simple). It helps if you can give the location for any archives you have used (e.g., Nottingham County Record Office), and the name given to a particular collection of papers. The time period may also be significant. For example, you may have looked at copies of the London Illustrated News but only for the period 1854-63: this is worth stating.
You should be able to locate a fair number of secondary sources (and some primary ones) in hard copy form in the Warwick University Library. Probably many more can be accessed electronically. The Library also has an inter-library loans facility (now known as ‘Document Supply’): for information how to use this, see the Library website, but it would be unrealistic to try to obtain more than a few items by this route.
You may also want to see what other libraries (especially university libraries) have to offer: many of these have on-line catalogues. You might also want to visit a university library elsewhere and for this you can obtain a SCONUL card from the Warwick University Library that will give you free admission (again see the Library’s webpage for information on this). You can also make use of the British Library reading rooms in London (but access for students is limited: see the Library webpage) or local archives, such a county record offices. This can be very rewarding but it is time-consuming (and in terms of travel and somewhere to stay) can be expensive.
One of the important aims of a dissertation is originality. What can you say that is new about a given topic? Originality really signifies one or two things – or both. It could meaning opening up a new line of enquiry that no-one else seems to have thought of or going back to the existing historiography and giving it a new twist. In this case it is likely to be your ability to reinterpret the existing material, to point out its flaws and limitations, and present logically and clearly a new case that is important. But, perhaps more often, we are looking for some new source – a collection of letters, say, or a first hand account of some kind – that adds a new dimension to an existing field of scholarship or which tackles a topic that no-one seems to have looked at before or thought to be of much importance.