How to Locate and Access Distant Sources for Your History Dissertation

Stuck on your undergraduate History Dissertation? Help is at Hand!

This blog post is one in a series dealing with the most commonly issues faced by students researching and writing their final year History dissertation or thesis.

Author: Caroline Nielsen, Programme Leader for BA History at the University of Northampton.

“Most of my planned primary (original) sources appear to be a different location to where I am studying…”

Congratulations! You’ve found a potential topic you love with lots of scholarship and loads of avenues you could look at. Maybe you’ve found this topic through the step-by-step guide of my last post.The topic has loads of existent primary (original) sources, maybe a complete archival collection or two.

One problem: the location of these main original sources and evidence.

On first glance, they all appear to be somewhere you can’t easily access. Maybe they all appear to be in one location and that location is at the other side of the country. Or an entirely different country altogether.

This can be an awkward problem to solve or work around. There is no way around it in some subjects.

But sometimes there can be.

Step 1: Find the Finding Aids!

The first thing to do though is to check that there is absolutely no way you can access them without significant travel time and costs.

As the access issue is an old issue that that has been faced by scholars at all stages of their historical research career, many archives and libraries have developed workaround guides to help users.

Published annotated bibliographies, catalogues, research or collection guides and ‘hand lists’ cite known works and other editions at the time of the guide’s production. The collective term for these items is ‘finding aids’.

‘Finding aids’ are also really useful if you ever need to check when something entered a collection, or the last known sighting or sale!

Finding aids are frequently digitized to help researchers from all over the world plan their research. Look out for collections on ‘Research Guide’ pages on archive and library websites.

A personal favourite and regular recommendation for my students is the National Archives UK Research Guides. This collection is at 355(!) guides to date, periodically reviewed and updated.

A useful anthology of finding aids and bibliographies in English is Jenny L. Presnell’s The Information Literate Historian (3rd edition, Oxford University Press, USA, 2018).

Some finding aids are famous in themselves and have been in use for a long time. Examples from the UK where I am based include:

Step 2: Investigate other formats for the sources and alternative versions (ideally with specialist help and the guides!) Have the sources you want been digitised already?

Note that I prefaced my introduction above with ‘appear’ or ‘seem to be’ to be inaccessible or in one distant location only.

Don’t expect all finding aids or alternative editions of documents to come up in online searches. Finding aids date, sometimes quite rapidly in the face of digitization!

Most universities and research libraries have a range of subscriptions to what are known as ‘primary source databases’. These contain digitized key-word searchable versions of primary documents, newspapers and periodicals.

If you have ever used the non-profit digital library website Internet Archive and its Wayback Machine Search, you have used one of these databases already!

Check your institution’s library page for info on what they subscribe to. Northampton’s A-Z Database Library is available here with overviews of the databases themselves.

Up to now, I’ve discussed original sources. All of these tips happily apply to secondary scholarly literature too!

Keynote or early pioneering articles are sometimes reproduced in edited scholarly book collections or in special editions of academic journals, often with a helpful overview of their impact. Many important historical documents are also reproduced in part or in full in edited volumes, with similar contextual information.

It is not just nationally important documents which can be reproduced in book form.

Lots of Historical Record and Local History societies produce excellent edited versions of key manuscripts held in small local collections or in private hands. Their volumes are often available in Local History sections in public libraries or via their websites. These societies work in partnership with owners and archives to help maximise access to rare documents that are often so fragile they cannot be shown to the public easily.

The Royal Historical Society has produced an online finding aid for the current societies in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

A word of caution: please be a little bit cautious about non-publisher or non-repository websites offering to sell copies of scholarly essays, drafts of articles or academic books or anything that is unclear about the ownership of the document. It may not be fully copyright-cleared or reproduced with the authors, publishers, or holding archives’ permission.

Always seek the advice of the professional librarians from your university or college if you are unsure about an online source offering materials for sale.

Step 3: “I’ve exhausted other options trying to locate alternative editions of the source I want. I think I might need to travel or pay for a digital copy of a primary source from the holding archive…”

What can you do in this situation, assuming you can’t travel to the location and the items you want are definitely not digitised?

Talk to your tutors (especially your dissertation or supervisor) if you think this might be the case. This should be your first action if you find yourself in this position. Before parting with money.

Your tutor may give you a few alternatives.

You may need to reflect on whether you need to take an alternative approach to your chosen topic. This would mean that you can still study the topic you want to but with acknowledgement of your travel or access issue to documents. Could you focus on a different time period? On a different author or personal subject? On a different region?

Thinking about creative alternatives with the support of your course tutors does not mean that the dissertation is going wrong but that the research is developing over time. The key is talk to tutors early about this type of topic and anything you think might affect your ability to study a particular topic.

Another option might be to pay for small-scale digitization or photocopies. But caveat emptor: buyer beware…

This route is often prohibitively expensive for students, especially if you don’t know exactly what type of information in an original source or document you want. Paying for a digital copy of one two-page document or photo may be feasible for you. But what if you don’t know where the information you want is? What if there are five potential documents? Or ten? Or twenty?

Historians often have to look at many original documents before we obtain even a small amount of the information we need for research. It is very difficult to judge without seeing the item in person.

And what about if the document is actually a full 500-page volume, not a few sheets of paper or a photo? I have done a lot of work with 18th and 19th century documents. Large leather-bound volumes of notes were common….

Digitization can also be quite time-consuming, especially if the item is fragile or needs special conservation. Film footage is notoriously difficult to digitize without the right equipment.

If you do decide to take the digitization route, talk to the holding archive in advance. They will guide you on feasibility, costs and delivery times.

You may ultimately decide to travel to the holding archive as part of your research. Some universities and learned societies have special research travel bursaries for undergraduate students. These sometimes run in the summer before the final undergraduate year, so it is important to ask about this type of bursary in advance to be sure of your timelines. They may not cover all of your research costs or be eligible to all undergraduate students. But they may help.

Until Next Time….

Join me and my colleagues at again for the blog in this series will be on translation and language skills…

And if you are enjoying this series or have suggestions for other themed blog post series, please do let us know! Tweet @HistoriansUON!

Photo by Lisa Fotios on

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