1. Know why you’re reading it.
If it was assigned, look at where you are on the syllabus and ask how this text fits into the goals of the course and the topic for this date. If it’s for your own research project, remind yourself why you chose this source: how is it relevant to your project?
2. Look for the main idea.
In a scholarly book, you’ll find the main point in the introduction (sometimes the preface or first chapter). In a scholarly article, it is in the introduction, usually towards the end. However, a more fully articulated version of the main argument is usually in the conclusion of a book or article. Look at both. When you find the main thesis stated, don’t just underline it, think about it. Does it make full sense to you yet? Do you have doubts about it? (Write those down.) In what specific ways does it help to serve the purpose that you identified in step 1, for the course or your own research project?
3. Find out what the argument is based on.
Look to the preface, introduction, conclusion, bibliography and footnotes to find out what kind of sources the author used. Finding out who the author is and the basis for his/her expertise on the subject may also be relevant (but if the author is simply a history professor somewhere, that’s often the end of the story – there isn’t always a lot of information to get from this).
4. Look at scope and organization.
How did the author limit the material being covered? There is usually a limit to the time period and geographical region involved, often stated right in the title. You should also look through the table of contents, and check the introduction to see if the author gave a more detailed outline there of what would be covered where (they often also say why). This tells you, first, how much of the work is directly relevant to your project, second, whether the author’s own goals make sense (did s/he exclude something that seems relevant? Can you find out why?), and, third, how to prioritize what you read next.
5. Take a breath, and then — read.
Think about what you’ve discovered so far, reassess your thinking about the value of this source and how it might help you in your own project. That should tell you what parts of the rest of the text you should read first (there’s no obligation to read in order, though that often will be a sensible route), and most importantly, it will tell you what you’re looking for as you read. It might be helpful to write out some questions/thoughts that have occurred to you so far — such as, “why didn’t the author cover X?” “something about Y sounds fishy so far.” “Can I use Z as support for my claim in my paper?” If you are reading for a class discussion, you might just hunt around for answers to these questions for now. If you plan to use this source in your own writing, now is the time to read it thoroughly to make sure you understand it fully and don’t miss important nuances, qualifications, etc.