Resources You Can Use from Home 1: Databases

This blog post was compiled and researched by Antonia Love, Graduate Trainee Archives Assistant, and written by Ted Simonds, Graduate Trainee Library Assistant.

Following the closure of the reading room on March 20th, we have been thinking about how we can be as useful as we can to our readers. Despite working from home, and without access to our physical collection stores or offices, we are still very much here. Our priority remains to be offering an enquiry service to help you navigate our collections, as well as accessing collections and resources virtually wherever possible. To that end, Antonia Love, the Graduate Trainee Archives Assistant, has compiled a list of resources that you can access at home to aid you in your research, whatever that might be.

The following four blog posts will provide links to, and tips for accessing and using online databases, digitised primary sources, subject-specific resources, the websites of archives and libraries, and some other resources we think might be useful.

Feel free to add any further resources in the comments to the individual posts.


In libraries and archives, a database is any computer system that we use to catalogue, store and structure the items in our collections, and when these databases are made public, they can be searched by you at home. Our archive, library, and object collections are searchable through Enterprise. For more help on using our database to find library and archive material, please see this guide.

When conducting research, you use databases without even noticing. If you have used a library search catalogue you have used a database. Thinking about what happens when you hit “search”; how the search terms you input yield results, and how the results you get can be limited and organised can help you in your research. Sometimes it’s easy to not know where to start. When you have an idea of what you want to look for, actually getting to it can seem like a huge undertaking. If you know which databases you can use, and how to search them effectively, finding the items and resources you want won’t seem too daunting.

Searching for archives

When searching archives it can be hard to know what exists and where those collections are held. The following will help you find out what is out there, and which institutions hold those items and collections.

The National Archives Discovery holds more than 32 million descriptions of records held by The National Archives and more than 2,500 archives across the country. Over 9 million records are available for download. Search for names of people, organisations, places, or just keywords relating to your research. You can limit your results by date and holding institution, and sort your results by date or title. This search function pulls together items held at lots of different locations, including ours, and this tool will point you towards those places. If you want more information about a collection or an item, it is best to contact the institution directly.

Archives Portal Europe is similar, although operates on a continental scale (searching all of Europe) and was created by funding from the European Commission. Your search covers 280 million descriptive units of archives across 7,113 institutions. You can search by archives, names, or by holding institution. There is a useful website which guides you through how to use this database and the kinds of searches that are possible. Again, this brings together items and collections from lots of institutions. Whilst some of these collections might be available to view online, where this isn’t the case (or if you are unsure) it is best to contact the institution directly to enquire about access.

ArchivesHub (JISC) is similar to The National Archives Discovery in that it brings together descriptions of archival collections in the UK. JISC ArchivesHub searches over 330 institutions, and you can see where they are on a map if you are only interested in finding collections that are near to you. New descriptions are being added every week, so it is worth checking back often if you initially can’t find what you want.

ArchiveGrid covers archival holdings in the USA. You can search for collections, people, organisations, places, events, and more through their simple search function. Your results are given to you in list format, but you can filter and refine your search results through clicking “Summary View” and limiting by a number of factors including archive locations, holding institutions, or by the place that the archive relates to.

Location Register of Modern English Literary Manuscript & Letters is a union list of modern literary manuscripts in over 400 British and Irish repositories. The search engine works in the same way as Enterprise, using fuzzy logic which works around misspellings and similar words. It is worth searching for your terms in “double quotation marks” for more accurate results from advanced searches.

Searching for books

Searching for books is different from searching for archives. Whilst some archives are catalogued to item level, different collections and institutions are catalogued differently. When you search for a book the metadata (the information about the book) such as author, title, publication information, and chapter headings is more uniform. If you are away from your university due to the lockdown, or if you are not affiliated with a university, you can still search library catalogues and find out what books are where.

WorldCat is a union catalogue, meaning that it combines the library catalogues of a number of different libraries. When you search WorldCat for a book you are effectively searching the library catalogues of many libraries at once. This helps you locate books you need, as well as seeing if there are online digital versions of those texts available online. You can click the “Open Access” box on any search to see if an online open access version is available. If you have institutional access through your university, you can also limit your results by Format, and then “Ebook”, and there might be an electronic version available through a database your institution subscribes to.

LibraryHub (JISC) – or the database formerly known as COPAC – brings together the catalogues of UK and Irish research libraries to make many rare and unique books discoverable through a single search. Like ArchivesHub, new institutions are being added frequently, so it is useful to check for your search terms on more than one occasion.

Open Library is a book database and digital lending library with the goal of making “all the published works of humankind available to everyone in the world”. As part of Internet Archive (, lots of the books are digitised versions of out of copyright works, there are also audiobooks and books still in copyright that can be ‘taken out’ by readers for a period of time.

The British National Bibliography lists books and journal titles published or distributed in the United Kingdom and Ireland since 1950, including hard-copy and electronic publications. It also contains the details of forthcoming books, making it the single most comprehensive listing of contemporary UK publications.

Searching for rare books

When it comes to finding rare books online, LibraryHub and WorldCat are the most useful of the resources above. However, special collections books are a bit different, and as such there are other databases that are better suited to finding old and rare books.

The English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) lists over 480,000 items published between 1473 and 1800. The books listed are mainly, but not exclusively in English, and are published mainly in the British Isles and North America. Like a union catalogue, they cover books in the British Library and over 2,000 other libraries worldwide. You can search by words anywhere in a bibliographic record (a catalogue entry describing a book or resource), as well as by author, title, place of publication, publication name, library name, and ESTC number. Each item has its own reference number to aid discoverability, citation and to distinguish between similar but differing imprints and editions of early printed books.

The Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC) is similar to the ESTC but deals with books published anywhere in Europe before 1501. An incunable (sometimes incunabulum) is a book or other item printed between 1440 and 1500. Because of the way printing technologies spread through Europe, and the fact that items from this period are not just books – but include printed broadsides, indulgences, and other printed ephemera – a database of items held globally is both useful and necessary. You can search by keyword, as well as finding items by browsing authors, titles, dates, and other terms.

This is not a definitive list of databases – but reflects some of the databases that we find useful when responding to enquiries and conducting our own research. More databases and tips for using them will be included in subsequent blog posts, particularly in Post 3: on Subject-Specific Resources.

Now that you know where to start searching databases and how to navigate your results – how do you actually see these archives and books? In the current situation, with reading rooms and workplaces closed, access is necessarily limited. This does not mean that you can’t still access the primary sources that you need for your project in some way.

The next blog post will cover where and how you can access primary sources online.

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