H:SE has an ongoing debate concerning whether requests for references are appropriate. Recently we've had some new opinions, which I find persuasive, and I'd like to offer a proposed change for consideration.

I believe we want to encourage questions that ask for specific sources, or which ask "What are the seminal historical texts in XXX studies."

The help center contains the phrase:

It is not about: ... Asking for reference material

I propose we drop that line and instead insert a line above:

If you have a question about: . . . Historical events, specific references or seminal references, . . .

There is a cluster of questions that should still be closed; I don't want to see "Please do my homework" questions, and I've made my disapproval clear on "I don't feel like doing any research at all; I'll ask H:SE" questions. I believe these questions can be closed on the grounds [that]:

It is not about:. . . Questions answered by a simple Google search or to be found in a Wikipedia page

I would further modify the list of "not abouts" to repeat/reinforce

It is not about: Questions with multiple correct answers, each of which are arguably correct. (i.e. "list questions")

This isn't a perfect answer; but I believe that sources are so central to the practice of history that we should encourage rational requests for sources

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    While I dislike this proposal, I believe the level of work put into it, and the low cost of testing, means that we should test this proposal. Oct 7, 2014 at 2:28
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    So what's the next step? There seems to be a generally positive support based on voting.
    – DVK
    Oct 30, 2014 at 18:13
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    I am flagging this to request someone higher up edit our help centre. Dec 15, 2014 at 23:38
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    Thanks for following this up Wallace! Jan 23, 2015 at 13:12

5 Answers 5


I can see a few other advantages of opening the floor to reference questions:

  • Some reference questions might also ask why a popular source is authoritative; which opens a whole other line of interesting enquiry.
  • The internet is notorious for not filtering authoritative from non-authoritative sources1; so in this sense History.SE can add value above and beyond the normal internet.
  • Some visitors might read the reference material and return to the site with interesting non-reference questions from the work they have just read. Put it this way, imagine you go to a library and the librarian refuses to tell you what books they have or where they are.

Regarding list questions, we need to ask ourselves for whose utility is the site: Ours and our point score? Or the questers who visit?

If we care too much about the lack of concision of multiple good answers such that no single answer has reliable dominance, we tend to forget that to a visitor having people say "We know the answer but we won't tell you due to game theory and SEO strategies you don't care about" is intensely frustrating. Many answers becomes zero answers; by reductio ad absurdum.

So I wouldn't get overly concerned about reference questions devolving into list questions providing some threshold needs to be met on answers to such questions and duplicate list questions are diligently weeded.

1. PageRank works on a different basis.

  • I agree with this. Regarding multiple answers, it just so happens that the policy against this was made for a board on programming and even there I strongly suspect it is misguided. If multiple answers end up producing some excess 'trash' answers that doesn't actually matter: people don't google trash -- it will not 'gob up' the search space. There is also a function on StackExchange called Community Wiki which could, if people understood that there's nothing to fear about (good) lists, produce very good resources. Jan 23, 2015 at 13:19

Your last change I like a lot.

In fact, its long been my contention (some here disagree), that the chief problem with requests for references is that they are questions with multiple correct answers (aka: list questions). So I'd argue that last statement alone would allow us to get rid of the entry about reference material (although it still might be useful as a way of making a very common case of list question more explicit).

I think I'm in agreement that there are some cases (eg: asking what the source of our information about a particular detail at a particular event is) that are inarguably a request for a reference, and ought to be 100% on topic. But its OK precisely because that question is not a "list question". There exists a single correct answer.

So what I'd like to see is the entire shebang distilled down to something like:

It is not about: Questions with multiple correct answers, each of which are arguably correct. (i.e. "list questions", particularly lists of references)

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    I see your point about not asking for a list of places and how that can be very broad, but at the same time questions are meant to generate multiple answers on Stack Exchange not one authoritative answer from the get go. I think if the question focuses on a narrowed down "Research-Method" it should be allowed. I will contribute my own answer as well with some good and bad examples from my perspective.
    – CRSouser
    Dec 12, 2014 at 13:43

My personal opinion on this is that Research Method/Tool style questions should be allowed and would contribute to the overall content and traffic of the forum. The thought being is people may not know all of their questions yet and are looking for a resource they may not know the proper terminology, be experienced enough, it is not their area of expertise, or they are just curious and figure someone that regularly deals in historical research probably knows of effective resources / tools to use rather than them spending hours hunting and pecking through search engines.

I know Genealogy.SE has also has some contention with such reference lists, but they also do not want to be doing people's research entirely for them (or as Mark stated 'doing their homework for them') so commonly provide references of where to check both in answers but also in the comments.

Another topic is, what is the reasonable amount of effort required before posting a question, does someone need to spend 3-4 hours researching before posting a question and then spend 30 minutes composing it and siting what they have already checked, or is a reasonable refined search and attempt to answer the question themselves OK? I would argue there needs to be a balance and also allow for some noise to facilitate new and existing users engaged and if someone seems like they put some effort into looking into it and not just drunkingly fired off a question because they saw something on History channel and was wondering more about it.

I think questions looking for an archival repository or source material that the questioner can then further research is useful if it is adequately scoped and specialized enough it would not be all over the internet.

Also I think questions about how someone would determine something are similar are also technically reference/resource method questions and should be allowed.

So for example and sake of discussion:

A) How would I determine the people from Kent that participated in WWII?" or do they need to specifically ask how many people from Kent were part of an armored division?

B) How would I go about determining the daily supplies consumed by the 3rd Armored Division during WWII? or would someone need to answer a more specific question like from September 2nd to September 15th, 1944 around the Battle of the Bulge? (Yes the dates are not fully inclusive, but that is part of the point)

C) Where can I find WWII AXIS prisoner lists captured by allied forces in the X region? or does someone need to know who they are looking for or ask like how many officers were captured in the question so it is specific and not a reference question?

In A-C you are enabling the quester, where as the alternative versions the one answering is basically becoming the researcher on behalf of the question taker if it is something that may take extensive research to compile or answer.

My first 12 hours of actively trying to participate in this forum I have seen a lot of opinion and editorial comments which do not contribute to the answer or help refine the question. To someone getting used to the forum's 'feel' this is highly frustrating when it seems more 'snobby' than contributing. So that said opening up this class of questions some of that would need to also be kept in check and instead of giving a "Well how could you not know the 3723rd digit of pie off the top of your head?" style comment to the question and help the questionnaire refine it instead or answer it.

So to revise Mark's proposed: If you have a question about: . . . Historical events, specific references or seminal references,

to: If you have a question about Historical research methods and the locating of original or specific reference materials related to particular events..

I personally would come to the site more often if I knew it would provide more of these type answers of where to find information.

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    Allowing such questions would go a long way toward making this site useful for professionals. "Do you know a source for..." is a pretty common conversational opener for academics.
    – two sheds
    Dec 12, 2014 at 14:52
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    @twosheds Yes! this openness is precisely what makes Mathhoverflow a useful site for mathematicians. Jan 23, 2015 at 15:09

I agree that relevant research-type questions should be on-topic. History is a vast subject - from an individual pov, effectively infinite - and when approaching a completely new aspect, one can be caught in the "I don't know what I don't know, so I don't know what to ask" conundrum. There is also an enormous amount of nonsense out in Internet-land, and I'm not talking about Holocaust denial etc, just uninformed rubbish. I discovered this recently when I googled medieval dress, and found one Q&A site where both questions and answers were more Hollywood than History! H:SE should be promoting serious historical enquiry, and if we refuse to tell enquirers where they should be looking, we are doing no one justice.

This does not include the obvious Write my essay for me questions. But where the OP displays an obvious desire to learn, rather than simply plagiarise - admittedly a subjective assessment - then I do believe we should err on the side of helpfulness.

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    'one can be caught in the "I don't know what I don't know, so I don't know what to ask" conundrum' - how true! Oct 20, 2019 at 23:13

I think source questions should just be governed by the rule: if it's easy to find on wikipedia or Amazon, don't ask for it here!

For example I once asked on Yahoo Answers (yeah, I know) for an English-language history book which primarily focussed on post-1945 South Korea. All of the ones I could find were about the relationship between north and south, if they weren't mostly about the north.

Quel surprise, all I got was trolling that I should eff off to wikipedia. I tried at the wikipedia reference desk, but didn't get much more help there. If I'd known this site existed I would have asked here, but I didn't. Apparently I can't ask it here as it stands, and I think that's silly!

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