Digital archives and primary sources for your dissertation

Not sure where to access digital archives and primary sources? Suddenly having to change the focus of your disseration and unsure what online resources may be available to you instead of physical archives? In this blog post I have pulled together some (hopefully) useful information and links for you to explore. Read through the whole thing or click on link below to read a particular section.

What digital archives and primary sources are already available to you?
Open access digital archives and primary sources
Trial access to digital primary source databases
Temporary access to resources in light of Covid-19 outbreak

What digital archives and primary sources are already available to you?

At the University Library we have access to, something like, over 400 digital primary source databases. Between them these databases cover 100s of years of history and contain a wide range of different document types e.g. newspapers, periodicals, official and legal documents, correspondence, diaries, books, pamphlets, sermons, audio and video recordings, images, objects, ephemera and much more.

To find and access all the digital primary source databases available to you at the Library go to:

Some of the major publishers of these digital primary source databases allow you to cross-search through all the databases the Library has access to through them at the same time. This can be a good way of starting your search as it can quickly search through multiple database, highlight specific databases you may want to access and do more advanced searching in or highlight individual documents or items in databases you may not have thought to look at in the first place. The downside is the cross-search options or platforms only allow you to search material from that one publisher and there are databases we have access to from much smaller publishers that could be missed, so don’t solely rely on the cross-search options.

  • Gale Primary Sources
    Really good search interface and easy to use.
  • AM Explorer
    Very basic search interface.
  • ProQuest
    We have access to huge range of ProQuest databases covering both primary and secondary sources, you will need to select specific databases you want to cross-search.
  • Digital Scholar Lab
    While it can be used to cross-search most of the Gale primary source databases we have this is more of a digital humanities tool so it allows you to do much more. There’s a good introduction video at Gale Digital Scholar Lab – Search Strategies.

Open access digital archives and primary sources

The majority of the databases available to you at the Library are behind paywalls. You don’t have to pay anything to access them as you’re a student at the University and the University Library has already paid for access. However, there are freely available (open access) databases and collections you can use as well. A small number of these are listed on the Digital primary source and archive collections guide and Newspapers, magazines and other news sources guide (indicated by an unlocked padlock) but there are many others out there. Google is your friend here but it’s always worth checking other university libraries, research libraries, archives and musuems websites as they will often have collections you can access freely. They may not always be so easy to search or browse but they do hold some worthwhile material.

Just some examples are:

This useful blog post may help you find more: The Ultimate Guide to Virtual Museum Resources, E-Learning, and Online Collections.

Trial access to digital primary source databases

We currently have extended trial access to 33 digital primary source databases covering 100s of years of world history. These include extensive newspaper archives and databases concentrating on U.S. history, the 19th century, crime and punishment, women’s history, LGBTQ history, slavery, refugees, radicalism, book and publishing history, South Asian history, history of China, and large databases looking at the the making of the modern world and the making of modern law.

You can access all trial resources from the E-resources trials page.

It may be possibe for us to set up more trials during this period. If there is a digital primary source database that the Library does not already have access to that would be important for your research at this time please contact me if you are from HCA or if you’re from another School at the University, contact your own Academic Support Librarian.

Temporary access to resoures in light of Covid-19 outbreak

You may be aware that some publishers are opening up or extending access to many universities at this time. The Library’s E-resources team are keeping track of these and listing them at Temporary access to additional e-books and other e-resources. If you haven’t looked at this page already it is worth doing so and keeping an eye on it as new resources and publishers are being added as they become available.

For primary sources you may be particularly interested in:

British Online Archives (BOA)

British Online Archive (BOA) are providing free access (until 31st May 2020) to its entire collection of digital primary sources in light of the Covid-19 outbreak. This means you have access to over 3 million records drawn from both private and public archives covering 1,000 years of world history, from politics and warfare to slavery and medicine.
Find out more…


Bloomsbury Digital Resources are providing us with full access to their online resources until the end of May 2020. Their collections include primary documents, critical texts, historical archives and the latest in video and audio resources. There are a wide range of databases available including Bloomsbury Medieval StudiesBloomsbury Cultural History and Arcadian Library Online.
Find out more…


JSTOR have opened up their access to more of their journal archives, e-books and primary source collections. This gives us access to 2 of their primary source collections that we’ve never had access to before, World Heritage Sites: Africa and Global Plants.
Find out more…

All of the above can be accessed via Temporary access to additional e-books and e-resources. It’s worth a good look through the other resources available on this page as there may be other very useful material you can get access to at this time that wouldn’t normally be available to you.

And finally…

This is an unusual time and unfortunately you will be limited in what archives and primary source material you can get access to online (there’s absolutely huge amounts of material that have never been digitised). Your dissertation supervisors will understand this so do talk to them if you’re worried. And feel free to contact your Academic Support Librarian if there are digital resources you’d like to access but looks like the University doesn’t currently have access to them and we’ll see what we can do.

Caroline Stirling – Academic Support Librarian for History, Classics and Archaeology