Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Primary Sources

Tools for Hands-On History

Historical Detective Work

History investigations are very much like mystery stories or crime investigations. The first few clues sparks a hunch (hypothesis or theory). Then come a bunch of questions that need to be answered by gathering more evidence. Putting together the pieces lets the detective or historian know whether their hunch was right or if they need to develop a new theory, raise more questions, and hunt for more evidence before reaching a conclusion.

Just like good detectives, good historians don't accept one person's word for what happened. Comparing multiple sources is the best way to get at the truth, which is usually some where between extremes.

Historians like to investigate sources of evidence that are closest to the subject. They call these sources primary sources, sources that no one else has interpreted. They also read as much as they can of secondary sources, which can help them understand what other historians have discovered. Learn more about primary and secondary sources.

Below are some of the tools of the historical investigation trade. Each type of evidence requires a different approach, though asking the right questions is a skill needed for every investigation. These tools will help you develop your investigation skills. Choose the one that best matches the kind of evidence (source) you are using.

Using Primary Sources

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