Using Online Archives: Part 3

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 Tom, who writes on finding eighteenth-century military sources.

How to find primary sources relating to eighteenth-century warfare in the British Library Collection

The British Library is but one of the many archives available to the aspiring historian. However, it is by far one of the biggest, and one of the more easily accessible archives out there, boasting an impressive collection of over 170 million items. The wide variety of usable sources, including manuscripts, maps, journals etc. makes this archive a favourable choice for researching the military developments of the 18th Century, as well as any other research topic.

The British Library offers very convenient methods of research for the budding military historian; it is open to the general public, provided you pre-book your visit and documents in advance which can all be done online. Primarily though, one of the Library’s main appeals is its extensive online collection, meaning you can still conduct research from the comfort of your own home.

Figure 1: http://www.gettyimages.co.uk

Nevertheless, considering the British Library’s online collection still consists of a staggering 80 million items, it can feel quite overwhelming. This is especially true of the 18th century, noteworthy for having many bloody conflicts. Therefore, it is important to refine search terms in order to find relevant and specific material.

As ‘18th century warfare’ is quite a vague term, the best approach is to start in the advanced search section, this will allow us to narrow down our search results. Simply clicking on ‘advanced search’ underneath the main catalogue’s search bar will take us there. From here we can do the following:

  • The advanced search is a ‘Boolean operator’, meaning you can combine or exclude key words and synonyms. This is done by using the AND, OR, NOT drop box options on the left.
  • To get the best results, it is worth playing around with the search terms by using a combination of different synonyms. For example, my search consisted of formation OR movements AND military in order to find sources relating to army planning.
  • You can further specify your search by choosing the ‘material type’. This could include books, journals, maps, newspapers etc. 
  • Moreover, there is an option to choose the dates of the sources, keeping the focus on the 18th century.
  • If you had a distinct conflict in mind or wanted to search for a specific term, simply add quotation marks to your search. For example, “the seven years war”.
  • On the left-hand side of the results page, you will find search suggestions, automatically generated to further help you narrow down your results.
  • There is also the option of using ‘wildcards’ in your search terms. You can use ? to replace single characters e.g. m?n could produce either men or man. Using * will replace multiple characters e.g. war* will also show results for warfare.

By using these search techniques, I was able to find two notable sources relating to 18th century warfare. The first was a British Army pamphlet entitled: Instructions and Regulations for the Formations and Movements of the Cavalry. As the title suggests, this was a guide for cavalry units on how to operate in certain combat scenarios.

The second source contains a map of Boston from 1775. This was developed during the very early stages of the American Revolution, amid The Siege of Boston. It illustrates the known positions of both the American ‘rebels’ and the British garrison’s key defence positions.

Bibliography

British Army, Instructions and Regulations for the Formations and Movements of the Cavalry (London: The War Office, 1797)

Dury, Andrew, A Plan of Boston and its Environs (London: Andrew Dury, 1776)

Getty Images <https://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/battle-of-culloden-16-april-1746-last-battle-of-1745-news-photo/113636816> [last accessed 21st October 2020]

The British Library <http://explore.bl.uk/primo_library/libweb/action/search.do?vid=BLVU1> [last accessed 20th October 2020]

The British Library <http://explore.bl.uk/primo_library/libweb/action/search.do?mode=Advanced&ct=AdvancedSearch&vid=BLVU1&dscnt=0&dstmp=1603204073815> [last accessed 20th October 2020]

The British Library <https://www.bl.uk/about-us/our-story/facts-and-figures-of-the-british-library> [last accessed 20th October 2020]

The British Library <https://www.bl.uk/help/guide-to-explore-the-british-library> [last accessed 20th October 2020]

The British Library <https://www.bl.uk/news/2020/august/were-reopening-for-everyone> [last accessed 20th October 2020]

The British Library <https://www.bl.uk/visit/keeping-everyone-safe> [last accessed 20th October 2020]

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