This blog post was compiled and researched by Antonia Love, Graduate Trainee Archives Assistant, and written by Ted Simonds, Graduate Trainee Library Assistant.
In our previous blog post, we listed some of the databases that we find useful when researching and responding to enquiries. Often, however, accessing a database is just the first step, with the activity of conducting research involving time spent with primary sources like books and archives.
The truth is that lots of libraries, museums and galleries are still closed, and will remain that way until they are safe to open. Read our updates on COVID-19 here. With limited access to our collections and reading rooms, enquiry services will remain limited – but this doesn’t mean you can’t still get access to the papers and books you need for your research. Some libraries are offering scan on demand, or click and collect services, others are experimenting with making their digital collections accessible to you at home.
If you are going to use primary sources online, there are a few things to keep in mind. Digital editions of books and archives (where the original item is a physical resource) are necessarily different from the items that you would come into contact with in a library’s reading room.
When you browse digital editions of books and archives, you can see items from all over the world – which means it is worth thinking about what exactly you are looking at. Is it a photograph of an item? a scanned image? a digitised microfilm reel? a transcription or somehow otherwise mediated text? which institution holds the item you are looking at? and how does accessing this item digitally differ to accessing it in person?
What tools can you use when consulting a digital item that you can’t use when with a material item? This might be the ability to search for key terms, to zoom in, to access related collections, or to see the item’s metadata all in one place. Different online depositories of online items offer different tools and focus on different collections. Some will be more useful than others.
Some of the digital primary sources below are only available if you subscribe for them, or if you are enrolled at/part of an institution that pays for access to them. The process of digitising a library or archive item is complex and costly, and it is also interesting to give some thought to the information professionals who make these resources available online.
Books and their Texts
Internet Archive is an invaluable and free way of finding and reading books online. Some of the books can be read in their entirety and downloaded as PDFs, some of them require you to register for an account and “borrow” the book. This is still free. There are over 4 million books online, and the books there are digitised versions (or digital facsimiles) of physical books. You can search by author, title, or keyword. Lots of the books have been processed with optical character recognition, which means you can search for keywords and phrases within a book.
Project Gutenberg contains full texts of over 62,000 works in fully searchable formats. Their eBooks may be freely used in the United States because most are not protected by U.S. copyright law, usually because their copyrights have expired. They may not be free of copyright if you live outside of the United States, and you must check the copyright laws of your country before downloading those texts. They also have some copyrighted titles, for which the copyright holder has permitted unlimited non-commercial worldwide use. There is more copyright information in the texts on ProjectGutenberg, but they can all be read and searched within your browser.
EEBO (Early English Books Online) is available through institutional logins if you study or work at a subscribing institution. It links to the ESTC we mentioned in our previous blog post, and you can search by ESTC citation number as well as the usual “author, title, keyword” search terms. The books on this site are all pre-1700. They are black and white digital scans of microfilm facsimiles produced in the mid-late 20th century. This is important to remember when thinking about colour, illustrations, and the visual quality of the page you are looking at. EEBO books do not typically include illustrative plates. Where they do, they are black and white and in high contrast. With all digital facsimiles, you are looking at one individual book that was chosen to be digitised – with early printed books this can be significant as how a book is bound and has physically survived can alter wildly between editions of the same work. The images you see are of one particular book, and other books in other libraries may look different. It is worth acknowledging this in your research by citing the digital facsimile of the item in a specific holding institution, rather than just citing the book or work itself.
ECCO (Eighteenth Century Collections Online) is similar to EEBO above but holds books published in Britain and its colonies in the eighteenth century. The items on this site are hosted by Gale, meaning you have to pay to access them or be part of an institution that does. The format of the books is the same as EEBO (black and white facsimiles), and as such, similar questions can be asked of these resources.
JISC Historical Texts brings together ECCO, EEBO, the British Library’s collection of 19th century collections (over 65,000 items), and the digital collections of the UK Medical Heritage Library (over 66,000 items). This is useful for searching across all these collections – spanning the English printed book from its inception to 1900 – in one interface. Of these, only the UK Medical Heritage Library is freely available, the others require institutional logins.
Loeb Classical Library is a way of reading texts of the ancient Greek and Roman world in the original language, alongside scholarly translations. This resource needs to be accessed through your university or school login.
Perseus Digital Library is a collection of sources supporting the study of the classical world. They host translated editions of ancient Greek and Roman works for free online. Like the Loeb Classical Library, they also have the original language available. What is more, they allow you to view the original text alongside different historical translations simultaneously through the toolbar on the right-hand side.
It is also worth mentioning that many libraries have public-facing free “digital libraries” where digitised versions of collection items are searchable. Whilst browsing aimlessly through these kinds of collections are fun, interesting, and intellectually nourishing, it can be more useful to use the databases in our previous blog post, or the collections that you know have the item(s) you want and go from there. In the spirit here are some online digital libraries we like:
- Cambridge Digital Library
- BnF Gallicia (Biblioteque National de France)
- Image Collections of the University of Edinburgh Centre for Research Collections.
- Digital Bodleian (University of Oxford)
- University of Manchester Library Digital Collections
- Many more! If you go to a library’s special collections website, click through to pages such as “How do I access these collections?” or “Digital collections” you might find primary source items that you didn’t know they had!
The British Newspaper Archive is a digital collection of millions of pages of historical newspapers containing hundreds of millions of articles from the British Library’s historic newspaper collections. You can search this collection of British newspapers published since 1800 by keywords. Like EEBO and ECCO some of the newspapers have been digitised from microfilm so are of lower quality than the newspapers that have been digitised with paper scanning. This collection of digital images is held by Findmypast so you will need to register for an account and pay to view any more than the 3 free pages you are initially allowed. Institutional access may be available at your institution. If not, there might be access to British Library Newspapers held by Gale.
The Library of Congress, through the National Endowment for the Humanities, has a resource called Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. This resource makes over 16 million pages of American newspapers from 1789 to 1963 available online. You can search by keyword within states, and limit by date.
The National Library of Australia’s Trove brings together collections from libraries, museums, archives and other collections all over Australia. Their digitised newspapers (of which there are over 227 million items) go back to 1800 and can be searched and accessed for free online. It’s worth checking out their general search function for resources other than newspapers too.
The Burney Collection of 17th and 18th Century Newspapers are a physical collection of the British Library containing 1 million pages including many rare single page and single-issue items. The collection has been digitised and is accessible if you are part of an institution that has access. You can search their (nearly) a million pages, across 1,270 titles from Britain, the Americas and its other colonies.
The HathiTrust Digital Library is a “digital preservation repository and highly functional access platform” meaning they hold digital books from lots of places (like Google Books, the Internet Archive, and Microsoft) and allows you to search for and read all public domain works, and to search for (but nor read) those that are held in copyright.
Hopefully, now, you will be able to navigate databases and use them to access primary sources online. If the databases and resources outlined thus far don’t seem relevant to your area of study – or you’re looking for material that isn’t just books or newspapers – you might find some of the tips in our next post more useful.
We know that our readers have diverse and varied research interests, in our next post we will offer resources for a range of subject-specific areas.