7 Locating Sources

Why you can’t just Google for your history research paper

If you are like most Americans in the 21st century, when you have a question, you head straight to a Google search box (or shout “Alexa” or “Hey Siri” or <insert your favorite internet search engine here>). If you’re looking for just the right primary and secondary sources, however, trusting a generic web search is not the best approach. Why that is relates to the specialized nature of historical sources. When you’re shopping for shoes, you don’t expect to find them right at the main entrance of the local mall; you know that at a minimum you need to walk through the mall to find a store that sells shoes. In the same way, expecting Google to provide you with a scholarly work (meaning peer-reviewed and with properly cited sources) or the best primary sources for your research paper on the first or second page of a search is sort of like walking into that mall and thinking one of the first ten items you’ll see will be those hard-to-find Doc Martens in your size.

Hints for database searc

In other words, the same place that can list “coffee shops near me” is NOT the best place to locate a scholarly book on the United Daughters of the Confederacy and their early twentieth-century efforts to build Confederate monuments across the South. Nor is it the quickest place to find comprehensive, reliable sources about when those monuments were built in your hometown. To find scholarly and historical sources that you can trust, it’s best to start with libraries, secondary sources, and primary source databases that specialize in the subjects you want to research.

Start with your library’s web page

Though you have most of the world’s knowledge in the browser box of your smart phone, you still need the library and librarians. Libraries remain the go-to resource for students because they:

  • categorize information;
  • specialize in academic, or peer-reviewed scholarship;
  • employ librarians.

Librarians are experts in library science, which is the study of how to manage information. They consider what sort of information users need, and how best to organize vast troves of information so that users can find the best information, in terms of accuracy and specificity. Smart students regularly turn to resource guides from their university libraries, because those guides curate what their library has access to. (Another reason to avoid starting with a generic search engine is that they inevitably point you to information behind pay walls that your own University may provide for free—or rather because you pay student library fees.)

For example, try exploring UTA Library’s History Subject Guide. This guide points out the best places to find articles from academic journal, databases for primary sources on a series of topics that are available in UTA’s library, and even a short video reminding you of the differences between primary and secondary sources.

Consult an academic encyclopedia

Note also that at the top of the page, there is “Background information” that points you to a reference guide. It is a VERY good idea to start any research project by looking up your topic in at least one, and if possible, more than one academic encyclopedia. While Wikipedia has improved dramatically over the last several years, it remains uneven and without official academic oversight that limit errors and informational gaps. A good research library will have access to literally thousands of encyclopedia covering historical topics. Encyclopedia for history topics cover every conceivable subject; at UTA, there are three different encyclopedia on race and racism, the Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, the Encyclopedia of Major Marketing Campaigns, and even the Encyclopedia of Swearing. You can search the catalog to find them (see below), but there are also two good databases that bring together many different academic encyclopedia:

There are also good online encyclopedic databases including:

  • The Handbook of Texas if you are pursuing a topic on Texas history. (Not all states have such a collection, and no state has one as comprehensive that for the state of Texas. But see, for example, North Carolina’s NCPedia or Minnesota’s MNopedia
  • Many museums and historical societies keep online resources, such as the National Women’s History Museum’s biographies of women.

Why start with such public history sites rather than just a plain Google search box? Experts (mainly historians) vet the material and so such sites are more reliable for research purposes. See UTA library’s Guide to Evaluating Websites.

Encyclopedia not only give you the basic information, but most also give a short bibliography at the end of the article, which is a great place to find secondary (and sometimes primary) sources to help with your own research. They might also be written by an expert who has published a book or article on the subject (which you would find out by putting the author into an article database such as JSTOR or a larger publication database such as WorldCat.

Finding a Book Using the UTA Library’s Website

Search the library’s catalog

Using your library’s search can be a bit overwhelming. While the best strategy is to dive in and use trial and error, but here are a few guidelines and a video to help you learn the ropes:

  • Using the advanced search is virtually always better than the basic search, because it allows you to focus on history sources and topics.
  • Using 2-3 broad search terms and keeping open “all fields” will insure not missing important possible sources, though it may provide thousands of results. Use the filters in advanced search for a more precise listing.
  • If you are looking for a good secondary source (such as a monograph for an assigned book review or a good journal article for background research), consider this method:
    • navigate to the “Content type” box. Click boxes for book/ebook (and include book chapter and journal/ejournal if you are not required to find books alone).
    • check the box for “peer-reviewed publications” in the bottom left.
    • exclude “newspaper articles” at the bottom of the page.
  • If you are looking for primary sources (or you have too many options) after putting in a couple search terms in “all fields,” use the filters on the left side to whittle down the search so that it focuses on what you need.
    • For published primary sources, use the bar on the left to limit the publication date to the period you are interested in. (Say you want to know what doctors and public health experts said about pandemics in the twenty years after the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic: put in “pandemic” and “influenza” in the search boxes, and then limit the publication date to 1918-1938. You might also limit the content type to books, journal articles, conference proceedings and other publications written by physicians and public health experts. If you wanted to see just what they were putting out for popular/public consumption, you could skip publications and just click “newspaper articles” and “magazines.”
  • Another alternative is to put in a broad topic and under Content Type check “archival materials.” In UTA’s search catalog, if you put in “Mexican War” in the search terms and checked “archival material” you will get many of Special Collections holdings on this topic.

Remember this advantage to searching your library’s database: it’s free for students. If you do search on the open web and hit a pay wall, always check to see if your library subscribes.

Use library databases

Library databases are enormously helpful in finding peer-reviewed secondary sources (as well as primary sources, but more on that below). But just as figuring out the best ways to search in your library’s main catalog takes some trial and error, databases such as JSTOR, Project Muse, Academic Search Complete require experimenting with search terms and judicious use of filters.

Hints for database searches for secondary sources:

  • Use “Advanced Search” rather the basic search box
  • Limit your search to History journals (In JSTOR there is a specific “Journal filter”)
  • Restrict the publication date to the past couple of decades if you get many options (unless you want to consider how historians have changed their approach to a topic over time).
  • In Keyword searches, you can add search terms and/or change the connections between the terms. Use “near 5 [words]” to link terms, rather than “and.” For example, if you want to research cholera epidemics in nineteenth-century America, use “nineteenth century” and “epidemics” and “United States”/”American” (If you allow “and” as the connector, any article with both of the terms can show up. “Near 5” means the terms must appear together, which increases the likelihood it will be on your topic. If you discover that many of your search terms are bringing up unwanted articles (say on some other nation in North America) you can add a search box connected with “Not” (as in “Not” “Canada”).
  • If you locate a good article—one that is very close to what you are looking for—pay close attention to its footnotes to find more books and articles on your topic. We call this method of locating sources “footnote mining” (see below for more information).

Primary Source Databases

Make sure to check your library for collections of primary sources on a variety of historical topics, from colonial America to nineteenth-century Britain; from the US Immigration history to the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Some databases are mostly documents, but others include video or maps. Your library pays a subscription fee for these databases, and they are rich resources for undergraduate research papers. Moreover, they are mostly text searchable, which can help you find just the information you are looking for.

Some of UTA’s excellent databases (all located in “Databases A to Z”) include:

  • African American Communities
  • Alexander Street Videos
  • American Indian Histories and Cultures
  • American Antiquarian Society (premier library of 19th century popular publications)
  • Chronicling America (early 20th century publications)
  • Eighteenth Century Collections Online
  • Immigration records of the INS
  • Newspapers, including full runs of the New York Times, the Chicago Defender, the Wall Street Journal, and the Dallas Morning News.
  • North American Immigrant Letters, Diaries, and Oral Histories
  • North American Women’s Letters and Diaries
  • Sabin America, 1500-1926
  • Women and Social Movements

Other Databases

Several public online (free) databases can help you with your research. A few of the most important ones are below, separated by geography and time period.

If you are looking for archives that house primary sources for a particular person, event, time and/or place that are not covered in the databases above, you can likely find it in WorldCat, a union catalog that itemizes the collections of almost 18,000 libraries in 123 countries. WorldCat can be difficult to search, so be patient in trying different keywords and filtering results. While search WorldCat from your institution, you’ll notice that you can choose to limit the search to items available in your library. You can also see the availability of items in nearby libraries, which perhaps maybe be close enough for you to visit. If they are not, contact your library for information about Interlibrary Loan (ILL). (See below). Keep in mind that unique primary sources that have not been digitized often cannot be shared via ILL.

As a last resort, you might try using that Google search box, placing “archives” and the place, event, or peoples you are interested in. The following document is a collection of open-access (see: free) primary source databases that have been organized by region/topic. While it is not an exhaustive list, it is for sure a good place to get started Primary Source Databases

Using a Primary Source Database



Bibliographies found in textbooks and other synthetic works

All good textbooks—both for survey classes and for more specialized topics—have a “for further reading” list at the end of each chapter. These lists often cover some of the most significant books on the topics, which means you might find them very helpful in providing background for your own research, or in pointing you toward other sources (see footnote mining below).

Consider, for example, the excellent “Recommended Reading” lists at the end of each chapter of American Yawp, a textbook used in many US History courses.

Footnote mining

One of the best methods to find targeted sources—ones that hit close to the topic you are interested in—is to follow the research path of scholars who have gone before you. Using one of the methods above—that is, searching your library catalog search, an encyclopedia collection, JSTOR or other databases—select secondary sources that represent well your topic. Then look closely at the footnotes. Is the author citing newspapers articles from a newspaper your library has a subscription to? Are there more articles that you could find in your library’s digital collections? Are they referring frequently to a significant historical figure who might have papers that have been published or digitized, and thus locatable in the Library of Congress, WorldCat, or in a web search?

Once you have the leads from mining the footnotes of another scholar, return to the methods above to check for accessibility from your library. If you cannot find it at your library and it’s the type of document that can be loaned between libraries (that is, not unique or rare), consider using Interlibrary Loan to gain access. (see below).

Interlibrary Loan

Using ILL is a terrific way to get sources that are not available in your library or on the web. ILL is a service provided free to students and you should definitely take advantage as it can put the best (that is, most targeted to your topic) resources at hand with a few clicks on your keyboard.  But it does take some planning ahead. You cannot, for example, leave research to the last minute and expect your local librarian to deliver resources from neighboring libraries within hours.

To use ILL, search your library’s web site and fill in the form. Having as much information as possible about the source you located will be helpful when trying to locate and borrow items from a neighboring institution.

Ask your reference librarian

Last, but not least, when you are working on a research project, consider using the skills of the experts in research information—your institution’s reference librarians. These professionals do not have to know about your topic specifically to help you, as they know how to find information on virtually any topic. Make an appointment via email or chat with the reference librarian in charge of history resources at your institution early on in your research process. Be ready to explain your topic, your efforts so far to find information, and perhaps to provide a link or copy of the sources you’ve found most helpful.


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How History is Made: A Student’s Guide to Reading, Writing, and Thinking in the Discipline Copyright © 2022 by Stephanie Cole; Kimberly Breuer; Scott W. Palmer; and Brandon Blakeslee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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