History referencing


Referencing is the process of acknowledging historians, writers or sources you have relied on for information and evidence. References are integrated into your own writing, either within the text, as footnotes (at the bottom of the page) or as endnotes (at the very end of your piece).

An essential skill

Referencing is used by academics and students across many subjects and disciplines, not only history. In most college or university courses referencing is a compulsory requirement; work that is submitted without referencing is either marked down, failed or not assessed.

It is therefore essential for students to learn how to reference and to begin incorporating referencing into their own writing.

Why is referencing so important? There are several reasons but here are three of the most pressing.

Referencing is evidence that validates your own argument

A strong piece of history writing should be written in a confident and convincing fashion – but it should also be supported by evidence. Without supporting evidence and attribution, even the best-written work can fall flat. An essay without evidence and referencing usually sounds like a string of unsubstantiated claims and opinions.

Thorough referencing of good sources lends weight and authority to your own arguments and conclusions. Good references serve as a list of experts who are on your side, supporting your ideas and conclusions.

Referencing is evidence of effective research

When a history student references thoroughly and effectively, they are also demonstrating the quality and depth of their research. A skilled teacher or assessor will look closely at your references. It will give them some insight into how widely and intensively you have researched. They will make note of the sources you have located and used – and they may hold you to account if these sources are not relevant or suitable.

Referencing can also show the course of your research and suggest how some sources have shaped your historical understanding.

Referencing acknowledges the work of others

As discussed elsewhere at Alpha History, history is not set in stone: it is an ongoing discussion about the past. Historians rarely start from scratch. Instead, they build upon the work of other historians.

When a historian or history student sets out to research a topic, they usually begin with a survey of secondary sources – that is, the published writings of other historians. Referencing recognises and acknowledges the work of these historians and the contributions they have made to our historical understanding.

Referencing is not simply an act of politeness courtesy, it is about giving credit where it is due.

Oxford referencing

Before referencing your own work, the first step is to know which form of referencing to use. There are several different methods of referencing in common use. Most schools, colleges and faculties specify a preferred method; you can find this out by checking your course handbook or asking your teacher or assessor.

Two of the most common referencing systems are named after prominent universities: Oxford (UK) and Harvard (US). The Oxford method is also known as ‘documentary note referencing’ or simply ‘footnoting’.

The main feature of Oxford referencing is its use of footnotes at the bottom of each page. Where a section of your text uses quotes, ideas or information from another source, a small superscript number (like this1) is added at the tail of the phrase, sentence or paragraph. If you have used more than one source then multiple superscript numbers can be used (like this1,2). Each of these superscript numbers refers to a numbered citation at the bottom of the page, for example:

1. Jones, S., Oxford Referencing for Beginners, Academic Books: London, 2002, p.12.
2. Smith, W., Referencing the Easy Way, Columbia Books: New York, 2007, p.33.

Most high end word processing programs, like Microsoft Word and Pages, contain automatic features for Oxford footnoting. They allow you to insert footnotes without having to reorganise or reformat your page. Check the ‘Help’ feature of your software for information on how to do this.

When adding footnotes, be aware that the Oxford system requires them to be organised and formatted in a certain way. The following links contain examples of Oxford footnoting for particular types of source:


Books with one author should be referenced thus: Author surname, first name or initial, Title of Book [italicised]. Place of Publication: Publisher name, Year, Page number.

e.g. Brown, Alexander, The History of Nazi Germany. London: Brown Books, 1975, p.94.

Books with two or more authors can be referenced by listing all authors. If this is too long or unwieldy you can list the first or lead author, followed by the Latin abbreviation et al (“and others”). First author surname and first name, et al, Title of Book [italicised]. Place of Publication: Publisher, Year, Page number.

e.g. Brown, Alexander et al. The Complete History of Nazi Germany. London: Brown Books, 1975, p.211.

Some books, such as sourcebooks or compilations, have an editor rather than an author. In this case, reference using: Editor surname and first name (ed.) Title of Book [italicised]. Place of Publication: Publisher, Year, Page number.

e.g. “Brown, Alexander (ed.) The Encylopedia of Nazi Germany. London: Brown Books, 1976, p.60.

Journals and magazines

For journal or magazine articles”]For articles in academic journals or published magazines, use the following format: Author surname, First name, “Name of article” [in quotation marks] in Title of publication [italicised], Volume number (if applicable), Edition number [if applicable], Date, Page number.

e.g. Brown, Alexander, “Hitler’s rise to power” in German History Monthly, vol. 9. no. 3, June 1977, p.544.

For an encyclopaedia entry”]To reference from an encyclopaedia entry or article, use: “Title of article” [in quotation marks] in Title of Encyclopaedia [italicised], Edition. Place of Publication: Publisher, Year. Volume number, Page number.

e.g. “American Revolution” in Encyclopedia Britannica. 42nd edition. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1991. vol. 1, p.98.


Where the journalist or writer is named in a byline, use: Author name, “Article headline” [in quotation marks], Name of Newspaper [italicised], Date of publication, Page number.

e.g. R. Smith, “Adolf Hitler appointed Chancellor”, New York Gazette, January 31st 1933, p.4.

Where the writer is not named, use as above but omit the author: “Article headline”, Name of Newspaper, Date of publication, Page number.

e.g. “War declared”, San Diego Tribune, December 8th 1941, p.1.


For websites where the author is not cited or conclusively known, use: “Page name or title” [in quotation marks], URL Address, Year of publication [if known], (accessed Date of last access).

e.g. “The Fall of the Bastille”, https://www.frenchrevolutionfacts.org, 2013 (accessed March 3rd 2014).

For a website where the author is known, use the above method but precede with the author’s (or authors’) details: Author name(s), “Page name or title” [in quotation marks] at Website name [italicised], URL Address, Year of publication [if known], accessed [date of last access].

e.g. J. Llewellyn and S. Thompson, “History referencing” at Alpha History, https://alphahistory.com/history-referencing/, 2019, accessed October 1, 2023.

Using ibid, op. cit. and loc. cit. 

Ibid., op. cit. and loc. cit. are three Latin abbreviations that often appear in Oxford referencing. They allow you to refer to the same source multiple times, without needing a full citation for each reference. This can be invaluable when writing a piece that focuses intently on one source, such as a book review. Just be careful that you understand the meaning of each abbreviation, as they can be confusing and are often incorrectly used.

Ibid. (short for the Latin ibidem, meaning “found in the same place”) is used where a reference to one source immediately follows a reference to the same source. Ibid. must be written or typed in italics and be followed by a period. Ibid. can be used alone (if the reference is from the same page) or it can be used with a different page number. For example:

1. Brown, Alexander, The History of Nazi Germany. London: Brown Books, 1975, p.94.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid. p.156.

In this case, both the first and second citations refer to page 94 of Brown’s book, while the third citation refers to page 156 of Brown’s book.

Op. cit.“]Op. cit. (short for the Latin opere citato, meaning “work cited”) is used to refer to a work already cited in footnotes. While ibid. refers to the immediately preceding citation, op. cit. refers to an earlier citation. It should be used after the author’s surname. Like ibid., op. cit. should be italicised and contain two periods. For example:

1. Brown, Alexander, The History of Nazi Germany. London: Brown Books, 1975, p.22.
2. White, John, Nazi Germany in Focus. New York: Imprint Books, 1992, p.104.
3. Brown, op. cit., p.81.

In this case, the first citation refers to page 22 of Brown’s book, while the third citation refers to page 81 of the same book.

Loc. cit. (short for the loco citato, meaning “located in the work cited”) refers to the same page of an earlier reference. It can be used on its own (to refer to the previous citation) or with the author’s surname (to refer to an earlier citation). For example:

1. Brown, Alexander, The History of Nazi Germany. London: Brown Books, 1975, p.103.
2. Loc. cit.
3. White, John, Nazi Germany in Focus. New York: Imprint Books, 1992, p.221.
4. Brown, loc. cit.

In this case, the first, second and fourth citations all refer to page 103 of Brown’s book.

Harvard referencing

The Harvard method of referencing uses in-text citations rather than superscript numbering. In the Harvard system, references are added in parentheses within the text, immediately after the relevant statement or quotation.

Harvard references are usually very brief, listing just the author’s surname and the date of publication. A page number is sometimes added when referring to a specific quote or piece of information. If the author’s surname is already mentioned in your writing, it does not need to be included within the parentheses. Full citations for each reference are then added to a reference list, at the end of the text.

This paragraph contains three examples of how Harvard quotations can be used. Note: they are dummy references and do not refer to actual sources:

Historians disagree about the level of authority Hitler wielded within both party and state. Some suggest Hitler’s image as a totalitarian mastermind was the work of a propaganda campaign dating back to the early 1920s (Smith, 2002). According to Brown (2007), Hitler’s inability to rein in the SA was evidence of his limited authority within the NSDAP. One historian describes the Nazi leader’s power as “much more public myth than party reality” (White, 1995, p.188).

As you can see, the Harvard method is quite flexible. It can be used for referencing a historian’s argument or summary, paraphrased information or a direct quotation.

Harvard referencing should always conclude with a reference list, containing full citations for all sources referenced in your work. In a Harvard reference list the citations are listed alphabetically, not in the order they appear in your writing. Harvard citations should use a similar format to Oxford citations (see above).

Citation information
Title: ‘History referencing’
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
URL: https://alphahistory.com/history-referencing/
Date published: September 8, 2019
Date accessed: July 12, 2024
Copyright: The content on this page may not be republished without our express permission. For more information on usage, please refer to our Terms of Use.