Using Databases for Historical Research

Historians use online databases to retrieve information provided by others, and they maintain personal databases to organize the information they have collected during their research.

Retrieving Information

The following is a partial list of online databases relevant to historical research. It includes some databases accessible to the public and some subscription databases accessible only to Hanover students and faculty. Understanding the various types of sources available through online databases and elsewhere is important:

Primary sources are items created during the time you are studying (such as newspapers, diaries, and letters).
Secondary sources are histories, or stories about the past based on primary sources (such as scholarly articles and scholarly monographs).
Tertiary sources are reference works, which summarize or synthesize secondary sources.

Primary Sources.

Myriads of digitized versions of primary sources are available online or through subscription databases. The following are some of the most significant databases available to the Hanover community. Each collection has its own peculiarities; many are unwieldy to use; and there is no simple way to search across collections.

American Memory is a project that makes millions of primary sources from the Library of Congress available online. These items include print and manuscript material, sound recordings, still and moving images, maps, and sheet music. Offering more than 100 collections of material from the Library of Congress, American Memory also makes available collections from other archives that complement the main body of American Memory. Begun in 1994 when the internet was new, it has grown organically, and, consequently, it can be unwieldy to use. One strategy is to start at the browsing page to search by topic, era, place, or type of primary source.

ARTFL includes multiple databases on French literary and historical texts. Begun as a French dictionary, the main database enables scholars to search for French words used in nearly 2000 works of French literature since the 17th century; it is especially helpful for studies in French language and literature. Other databases sponsored or co-sponsored by ARTFL include The Textes de Francais Ancien, the ARTFL Encyclopedie Project, Pamphlets and Periodicals of the French Revolution of 1848, the Opera del Vocabolario Italiano, and Renaissance Dante in Print (1472-1629).

Digital Collections of the Library of Congress offer a "growing treasury of digitized photographs, manuscripts, maps, sound recordings, motion pictures, and books," focusing especially on the Library's "most rare collections and those unavailable anywhere else." Composed of a variety of independent projects, some of which began in 1994 when the internet was new, the Digital Collections can be unweildy to use. The Library does offer a guide for researchers here. Among the projects housed in the Digital Collections are American Memory, Thomas, and the Library's Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.

Early American Imprints offers digital facsimiles of more than 37,000 books, pamphlets, and printed items published in America before 1800. The collection is based on a famous bibliography of early American printing compiled by Charles Evans. Texts are full-text searchable.

Early American Newspapers offers digital facsimiles of over 100 newspapers published between 1690 and 1876 (with the bulk of the material dating before about 1830).

Early English Books Online gives searchable access to nearly every English books printed from the invention of the printing press (1475) to 1700. The books are full text and available as facsimile images (photographs of the books themselves) in the form of pdf files.

Google Books includes millions of digitized books for which the full text is available for free (most published before 1923).

The Hanover Historical Texts Project began in 1995 when Hanover faculty and students were leaders in the movement to make primary sources available online. They focused on primary sources that would be useful for college classes on history or the humanities. Collection development was most active in the 1990s.

The Internet History Sourcebooks Project, edited by Paul Halsall and housed at Fordham University, is a large repository of primary sources available for educational use, with a focus on those items useful as assignments in college history classes. The primary sources are divided among three "main" sourcebooks: the Internet Ancient History Sourcebook, the Internet Medieval Sourcebook, and the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. Other "subsidiary" sourcebooks are thematic groupings of primary sources, most of which are also included in the main sourcebooks; they include such topics as women's history, the history of science, and East Asian history. Begun in 1996 when the internet was new, it has grown organically, and, consequently, it can be unweildy to use. Using Google to search the sourcebooks can be helpful. (Try including in the Google search box the appropriate sourcebook title as well as the keyword that interests you).

Making of America is a digital collection of nineteenth-century published sources, including about 10,000 books and 50,000 articles from magazines. It focuses on the period between 1850 and 1877, and it is especially helpful for topics in education, psychology, sociology, religion, science, and technology.

The National Archives (the National Archives and Records Administration, NARA) offers many primary sources online, including in-depth treatments of "100 Milestone Documents" (such as the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence). As NARA admits, researchers "have to look in several places to be sure you’ve checked all available sources." They provide a checklist to help researchers in that task.

The Prints and Photographs Online Catalog at the Library of Congress provides access to over a million digital images of items in the Library's collections. The online catalog includes about half of the holdings of the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress, and a portion of those cataloged items (over a million of them) include digital images.

Project Gutenberg began digitizing books in 1971, and their collection now has over 36,000 out-of-copyright books. Their digitization process includes proofreading, which makes their books easier to use and more reliable than digitized books from other sources. The advanced search function allows researchers to do full-text searching of the entire Project Gutenberg collection.

Thomas is a project of the Library of Congress that provides primary sources from the U.S. Congress, such as bills and the Congressional Record.



Secondary Sources

There are two essential databases for finding scholarly articles and book reviews in history: America: History and Life (for the history of United States and Canada) and Historical Abstracts (for the rest of the world). Both are available to Hanover students online. There is one essential database for finding books in history: Worldcat. The Duggan Library subscribes to two substantial archives of full-text journals: JSTOR and Project Muse, and it also subscribes to other databases, both bibliographical and full-text, that are either in broad catagories that include history or are sub-specializations within history.

Essential databases of secondary sources:


Other useful databases of secondary sources:

Tertiary Sources

Tertiary sources (such as encylopedias) provide an overview of a topic that can be helpful in getting ideas about a topic or narrowing a research question. College-level research may begin with tertiary sources, but it never ends there. As a general rule, tertiary sources available in print form are most likely to be reliable. Online sources that are "open source"are ones the public can edit; they are the least likely to be reliable.

Other Sources

Although the following sources do not fit the above categories, researchers may find them useful.

The Duggan Library Resource List for the Humanities lists websites that may be of interested to historians and that are recommended by Hanover librarians. It includes a brief description of each resource. Note that the websites found in the resource list are the ones used for the Duggan CSE.

The History News Network offers articles and blogs intended to put current events in historical context. It also offers news and biographies of professional historians. The site offers breaking news and a searchable archive of the articles and blogs that have appeared since spring of 2007.


Organizing Information

In addition to using online databases to collect information, many historians create their own databases to help them organize and analyze the information they collect and to make the writing process smoother.

Reference management software can be useful for historians whose research is rooted in the analysis and interpretation of texts (whether they are primary or secondary sources). They help organize notes and bibliographies and translate bibliographic information into a variety of citation styles. The Center for History and the New Media has developed Zotero, which offers reference management in the form of a web browser plug-in. Designed by historians, it is especially helpful for taking and keeping notes on online documents (such as those available through the databases listed above). Procite and Endnote are two popular commercial products.

The Center for History and the New Media offers a variety of other programs of interest to historians. More details are available here.

Finally, standard database and spreadsheet software, such as Microsoft's popular Access and Excel, can also be useful for organizing a variety of information, especially for basic statistical analyses.


Last updated: Jan. 7, 2012
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