Topic Selection

Thoughts on Choosing a Topic for a Research Paper

The first crucial and tricky step in doing a successful research paper is choosing a topic. Picking a topic that is interesting to you is important, but it also has to be practical, and you won't be able to write a good paper if you can't find good primary sources in our library or the Internet. Thus, before you do anything, make sure there are primary sources available.  Also, try to pick something that is unique and hasn't been done a million times. Before I will approve a topic, you must show me that you have found good primary sources on it. 


A good way to choose a topic is to find a stash of primary sources and then imagine what kind of paper you could write using them.  We have an embarrassment of riches in our library, many of which are rarely used by students.  Below is a sampling, just to give an idea of the kinds of things you will find in our library:

The papers of so-and-so.  We have published collections of most of the great statesmen and -women, and some you have never hear of.  For example, we have collections of the papers of William Penn, Robert Morris, George Washington, Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, Frederick Douglass, Jefferson Davis, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Samuel Gompers, and Woodrow Wilson, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King.  We have access to some papers via the Internet, e.g., those of Booker T. Washington or James Madison; or on microfilm, e.g. Josiah Bartlett (NH signer of Declaration of Independence). Type the word "papers" into a Biblion keyword search and you will get hundreds or maybe thousands of hits.

Other collections of documents: A huge collection of State Department memos; records of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; every scrap of paper produced during the Civil War; COINTELPRO documents (the FBI's secret file on radicals in the 1960s);  transcripts of various trials and government commissions; collections of documents related to the Pentagon Papers case; A collection of papers relative to the dispute between Great Britain and America; papers of the continental Congress; James Madison's notes  from the Constitutional convention; records of the state ratifying conventions of the US Constitution;

How about a PEA topic.  For example, the notes of the coeducation committee, 1969.  Talk to Mr. Desrochers about using the academy archives. Students very rarely do this.

Memoirs: Albion Tourgee on Reconstruction, Civil War POWs, Indian captivity narratives, Vietnam war narratives.  Type "personal narrative" and a topic that interests you into Biblion.  See what you get.   A new source in the last couple of years: African-American newspaperman Roi Ottley's World War II diary.

Various commission reports: Warren, Wickersham, LA riots, Kerner, minimum wage, social security, Harlem riot of 1935, race and housing.

Statistics: you probably can't base a whole paper on stats, but don't neglect them.  See Historical Statistics of the United States in the reference collection.


Consider writing about one of the great trials from American history.  Primary sources, including trial transcripts and press accounts, are usually plentiful and the underlying story is usually quite dramatic.  You really can't go wrong by choosing one of these.  An excellent website that includes primary sources and other information on great trials can be found by following this link:


Exeter, NH, has an excellent historical society, right next to Peabody hall.  The Exeter Historical Society archives primary documents pertaining to the local  history of Exeter, including the town newspaper, census records, town government records.  If you are interested in a particular period of history and wonder if there might be a local angle, contact the curator, Barbara Rimkunas at, and ask if she has any pertinent records. She has expressed an interest in working with our students, so don't be shy. 


Another place to go for topic ideas is today's newspaper.  Concerns about current issues often guide historians to look at related issues in the past.  You can't do any one of these, though, unless you can match it to a particular set of primary documents available to you in the next month.

Education. In his 2011 State of the Union Address, President Obama emphasized the importance of reforming education and said "This is our generation's Sputnik moment."  One might consider a number of topics related to education.  There are many good overviews of the history of education reform in America, e.g., by Dianne Ravitch and Lawrence Cremin.

Horace Mann, and the origins of compulsory education in Massachusetts

Progressivism and education reform

John Dewey

Gender in education reform

Race and education

The original Sputnik moment

Great Society education reform (1960s)

Origins of the home schooling movement

The "Nation at Risk" report of the 1980s

Foreign relations. The recent revolutions in the Middle East, or the film, Argo, might lead to a paper on US relations with various nations, or its role in previous events in that region of the world, for example, Iran in 1954. Where else has America intervened?

Political movements. The triumph of Tea Party candidates in the 2010 election or the Occupy Wall Street movement might lead you to a research on the history of conservatism or populism.  An excellent overview of the history of conservatism: Patrick Allitt, The Conservatives.

Herbert Hoover and the New Deal. 

William F. Buckley and the National Review

Barry Goldwater's bid for the presidency; or his opposition to social conservatives later.

The Powell Memo of 1971--a blueprint for the revolt of the corporations?

The birth of a conservative legal philosophy: originalism.

Was Lincoln a Conservative?

Was Theodore Roosevelt a Conservative?

Sports. The recent controversy over concussions in the NFL is not the first time there's been an outpouring of national concern over the brutality of the game.  See the article by Ben McGrath in the Jan. 31, 2011 New Yorker.

Labor. The Republican governor and state legislature of Wisconsin recently curtailed the collective bargaining rights of state employees.  Philip Dray, There is Power in a Union, is a fine overview of unions in America, a very under-utilized but important topic (most of us end up spending the better part of our live working for a living).  Some possible topics related to labor. 

The debate over collective bargaining

The Norris-LaGuardia Act and/or Wagner Act (how on earth did the federal government decide to take the side of labor vs. management?)

The Taft-Hartley Act

One of the major strikes or protest movement: The great Railroad strike, Homestead, Haymarket, the eight hour day, sit-down strikes of the 1930s, the strikes of 1919—Boston Police or Steel workers.

The unionization of public employees, or one group of them, such as teachers.

Family. The recent publication of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua has created quite a stir.  See, for example, the three articles on the subject in the April, 2011 Atlantic magazine.  The third of these includes a review of a new book by Howard P. Chudacoff, Children at Play: An American History.  Social/cultural history—e.g., the history of child rearing—is interesting but difficult, and probably different from anything you have done before.  Only strong history students should attempt a topic like that.  A good overview of the history of the family is Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were


Did you study something that you wanted to know more about?  Skip something you were interested in?  Write a paper you'd like to expand upon?  You can build on your 331 or 332 research project, but make sure you show me a copy of that paper. You can also look at the wonderful LibGuides the librarians have created for each period of American history on the library website.  Each one has a list of suggestions for primary sources.