Using Online Archives: Part 2

Our second year students taking the Dissertation Research Skills module were given an assignment to write a 500-word blog post that would serve as a  how-to guide for using a particular online archive or library catalogue. With the students’ permission, we’ll share some of the best posts here. This one is by Nicole, who wrote on how to find nineteenth-century obstetrics sources.

How to find primary sources related to nineteenth-century obstetrics in the Wellcome Collection.  

The Wellcome Collection is a dedicated medical archive based in London. Sitting in 183 

Euston Road, the Wellcome Collection is a free museum and library that can be visited Tuesdays – Saturdays from 10:00am to 5:00pm, although active researchers will be pleased to note that it remains open until 7:00pm on a Thursday ( Due to the current situation, it operates a ticketed entry, however, it has a spectacular online archive to access primary sources. The Wellcome Collection is one of the leading collections of medical sources in the world, therefore this is why I have chosen to use this archive for researching obstetrics in the nineteenth century. However, using archives can be a difficult and overwhelming task, therefore, I have created a little guide to help my fellow historians, or keen budding learners, to use the Wellcome search catalogue. The Wellcome Collection also provides simple instructions to help ( 

Using a catalogue or library to search can be overwhelming but do not stress, I aim to provide a comprehensive manual. In the screenshot below, you will see the Wellcome Collection’s library catalogue ( 

Screenshot of the Wellcome Collection’s Library Catalogue, 2020.   

As I am focusing on nineteenth-century obstetrics, you will see that I put obstetrics into the‘keyword’ search bar. The library catalogue has a button that allows you to select a time period, which is an extremely useful tool. I put in ‘19th century obstetrics’, and it came back with 9 pages of results, which is not unmanageable but can be narrowed or expanded further.  

Screenshot of The Wellcome Collection’s Archive and Manuscript Catalogue, 2020.   

To narrow down or expand search results further, we have multiple tools at hand, such as: 

  • Synonyms – Instead of using the word ‘obstetrics’, I used the terms ‘childbirth’ or ‘labour’ to tailor the results further. 
  • Alternative spellings – lots of archives contain primary sources from all over the globe so it is important to look at different ways of spelling to access the records. For my research topic, I changed the English ‘labour’ to the American ‘labor’ to see if it  allowed me access to other sources.  
  • Boolean operators – The use of ‘NOT’, ‘OR’ and ‘AND’ to search collections. When I did my own research, I used ‘AND’ to highlight particular searches I wanted such as ‘Childbirth AND England in the 19th century’. 

After using these handy tools, and selecting the item I wanted to view, and then I pressed the ‘request this item’ button which came up with the document’s shelf mark, as well as the opportunity to view the primary source online.  

Screenshot of The Wellcome Collection webpage of where to find and request documents.   

I managed to find two fascinating primary sources to investigate further. These sources will prove to be incredibly useful in my research for my dissertation on the degradation and erasure of British women’s experiences in childbirth during the nineteenth century, due to the increasing number of male doctors entering the field. The first source is on case history notes, from a surgeon-apothecary from Doncaster, York. My second source is John Dye’s 1882 book on Painless Childbirth (pictured below). Both sources were easily found on the Wellcome Collection and have proven to be useful sources for my dissertation research, as I hope this guide has helped you as my reader to use the site to explore and research.  

A screenshot of John Dye’s book on ‘Painless Childbirth’ on the Wellcome Collection’s online document viewer.   


  • London, The Wellcome Collection, Robert Storrs, Surgeon-Apothecary, Case  Histories From His Practise In Doncaster, York, MS.8545. 
  • The Wellcome Collection, Painless Childbirth: Or, Healthy Mothers And Healthy Children; A Book For Women Containing Practical Rules How The Pains And Perils, the Difficulties And Dangers Of Childbirth May Be Effectually Avoided; Also, A  Practical Consideration Of The Diseases Of Women, And Their Common-Sense Treatment, Prescriptions, ETC, .b21026129, [Accessed 19-10-2020].   

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