Researching Your Object

If you’ve gotten this far, that probably means our Editorial Board has approved your proposal—so, congratulations!

That means it’s now time to get into the real work of researching, writing, and revising your object history. Keep following our guide below for more advice as you work towards final publication!

Asking Questions About Objects

As tangible records of the worlds we have lost, objects help us experience and explore the past in ways that more traditional historical documents—written text and images—often cannot. But compared with the words and images we find in historical documents like newspapers and diaries, objects can seem pretty tight-lipped about the past. Once you know how to ask the right questions, however, objects turn out to be full of fascinating stories.

Microfilm, 1952.
Historians reading microfilm at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1952. Photograph courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID 45989.

Here are six sets of questions you can ask to help you get started with researching your object history.

  1. Where is the object from? What might the object say about that place’s role in Wisconsin history?
  2. When is the object from? What surprising things can the object help us remember about that period in time?
  3. Who made the object? How was it made? Who used the object? How did they use it?
  4. What can we learn about economics, cultural values, politics, etc. from knowing how the object was made and used (and who made and used it)?
  5. Was the object expensive or cheap? Has it become more valuable, or less? How and why?
  6. Was the object made more for utility or beauty? Or somewhere in between? Did those intentions change over time? How? Why?

There are countless more questions like these that you could ask to help kickstart your research. You don’t have to be able to answer every possible question about your object, but the more you can answer, the more material you’ll be able to work with.

Eyes on the Prize
Women researching, 1942.
Young women conducting research at Edgewood College (Sacred Heart Academy), 1942. Photograph courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID 13762.

As you conduct your research, always keep in mind your final products for submission:

  • A final object description of 100-200 words.
  • At least two polished and expanded related stories of 300-400 words. (Just one related story if you’re a high school student).
  • Images to illustrate your object and its stories. Click here for more information on finding images for your object history.
  • Note: we also welcome audio and video recordings as part of your object history, but these are much more complicated to produce. If you’d like to include audio or video with your submission, please talk to us first—we can usually offer some assistance.
Kinds of Sources
Examining sources, 1953.
Former director of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin Clifford Lord examining sources, 1953. Photograph courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID 98886.

Although part of the fun of historical research is discovering primary sources, don’t forget the value of secondary sources. Books and articles that have already been written by other historians and other experts can offer valuable insight and context for making your story appeal to readers from across Wisconsin and beyond.

Always be sure to record where you found your information and images. At a minimum, for any written, photographic, or illustrated source you should record as much of the following as possible:

  • Author
  • Title
  • Place of publication
  • Publisher
  • Date published
  • Page number (if relevant)
  • If it’s a primary source, make a note of its current location, including a call number or the archive’s box and folder numbers.


Finding Sources

It’s often hard to know where to start when beginning a new research project. We’ve compiled a few resources here to help you get started on your search.

A researcher examines documents with Wisconsin state archivist F. Gerald Ham (left), 1965. Photograph by the Milwaukee Journal, courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID 111728.
A researcher examines documents with Wisconsin state archivist F. Gerald Ham (left), 1965. Photograph by the Milwaukee Journal, courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID 111728.
Turning Points in Wisconsin History

Compiled by the Wisconsin Historical Society, “Turning Points in Wisconsin History” is a valuable online resource that gathers dozens of essays, books, eyewitness accounts, pictures, and museum objects concerning a broad range of themes in Wisconsin history. From early native peoples to natural resource extraction, immigration to urbanization, “Turning Points” is a great place to start your search.

Wisconsin Bibliography PDF

This Wisconsin bibliography (download PDF below) covers a range of topics, from place names and environmental change, to economic development and Wisconsin’s cultural landscape. Note that because this bibliography was published in 1993, the secondary sources it lists can sometimes be quite dated. You may want to also search for newer essays and articles on your topic.

Download PDF

Wisconsin History: An Annotated Bibliography

Although it’s almost two decades old, this book remains perhaps the best compilation of writing on Wisconsin history. Check your local library, museum, or historical society for a copy as it’s very expensive to buy online. The Wisconsin Historical Society library in Madison also has at least two copies in its collections.

Paul, Barbara Dotts and Justus F. Paul. Wisconsin History: An Annotated Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Google Books Link

Wisconsin Magazine of History Archives

Published continuously since 1917, the Wisconsin Magazine of History contains thousands of essays on Wisconsin history and geography. Whether you’re writing about an old marionette from a Wisconsin traveling circus, or the state’s aluminum cookware industry, you’re sure to find something useful in the Wisconsin Magazine of History.

Librarians & Archivists

Whether at your local historical society or museum, or the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison, librarians and archivists are incredibly valuable for tracking down the materials you need for researching your project.


Finding historical images to illustrate your submission can sometimes be tricky (but we’re also always available to help). We’ve created a separate page with tips for finding images.

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