To make history interesting, you'll want to think about questions that come up for you as you read historical documents. A research journal is a great place to write your thoughts about the primary and secondary source material you are reading. It is a record of your questions about the materials and your tentative answers to those questions.
Think of the journal as a roadmap of your intellectual journey through the sources. The journal is a place to discuss your notes, not just record your notes.
A research log, in contrast, helps you keep track of what, where, when and even, the how of your research process. It will prevent you from repeating searches and will also help you keep track of the language and jargon unique to the disciplines you most often search. It is very useful to keep track of the various subject headings that each author uses. A paper may require only a small amount of library work, but a major project involves a thorough and systematic approach to keep reference sources straight: each source may use a different subject heading for the same concept. One source, for example, may list material on the Civil War under “Civil War,” while another may have information under “United States—History—Civil War—1861-1865.”
It is possible to combine the research journal and the research log into one document. The trick is to be sure that you are not just taking notes from your sources, but interacting with the sources and asking questions. As Patrick Reil of Bowdoin College notes, "Good historical writing is the result of the process of asking questions and pondering answers (even if it looks like the historian had all the answers from the start). You simply cannot develop good papers without engaging in this process." The journal is a way to record these internal conversations, and use them to develop your paper." To assist you in keeping track of your sources and pondering questions about what you're reading, consider using the Library Research Journal Entry.
Cathy DeShano and Emma Schroeder, both students of William Cronon, have created an extremely useful guide on note-taking entitled "Learning to Do Historical Research: A Primer. The Pleasures of Note-Taking." Take a look at the examples they provide. Then, begin to see how you might include your own thoughts in your journal as you read history.
History Information Literacy Modules