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Welcome to the History subject guide - your guide to using the library resources, services and facilities for your subject.

Research a topic

While your course Resource Lists are were you would normally start when beginning to explore a topic, a major part of "doing history" is carrying out research - discovering the historiography (historian's interpretations of the past) and/or relevant primary source documents.

This means you need to be able to do a comprehensive search for books, journal articles, and other sources relevant to a specific topic that provides a base of knowledge. This is often referred to as literature searching. 

To search for this literature you need to use Library resources, such as DiscoverEdLibrary research databases, etc. 

You also need to be able to search for relevant primary source documents, whether that be through digital resources or physical archives. 

Literature searching - History

You can use the Library's research databases to search for journal articles, book chapters, book reviews, theses, conference reports, etc. Research databases usually cover specific subject areas and these databases are recommended for History. 

If you know exactly what you're looking for e.g. a journal article, book, etc., then you should search for it in DiscoverEd as it searches both the Library's online and physical collection

However, ​you can also use DiscoverEd to do some basic literature searching and can be a good place to start.

Google Scholar Search

Google Scholar provides a simple way to broadly search for scholarly literature. From one place, you can search across many disciplines and sources: articles, theses, books, abstracts and court opinions, from academic publishers, professional societies, online repositories, universities and other web sites. Like DiscoverEd, Google Scholar can be a good place to start your search but it does not allow for advanced or complex searching as in the Research Databases.

Access eresources using Google Scholar 

Google Scholar may not provide access to full-text, however, by linking to the Library you can access full-text where there is a University subscription. 

  1. Selecting Settings from the top of the Google Scholar Home Page
  2. Selecting Library Links
  3. Search for University of Edinburgh. Select it from the list and Save your settings

You will now see FindIt@Edinburgh links next to items in your Google Scholar results that you can use to access the full-text.

This short video below demonstrates how to do this.

Bibliographies, dictionaries, encyclopedias, reference works, etc.

Digital primary source and archive databases

The University has access to an extensive range of online primary source and archival collections covering 100s of years of world history. These databases contain digitised copies of a vast range of primary source documents and material. 

Not sure what database to use to search for primary source material or documents? Don't worry, these guides will help you identify primary source databases by time period, country/region or theme, as well as useful cross-searching tools and platforms.

Cultural and heritage collections

The Centre for Research Collections (CRC) is the main space for anyone using the University of Edinburgh's historic, cultural and heritage collections, including rare books and manuscripts, University of Edinburgh archives, personal and institutional archives, Lothian Health Services Archives (LHSA), University of Edinburgh PhD theses, art collection, musical instrument collection and a wide range of other museum objects from geological specimens to anatomical models.

  • 400,000 rare books
  • Over 6km of manuscripts and archives
  • Around 200,000 artefacts, works of art, potted material, models, specimens, musical instruments and scientific apparatus
  • Over 40,000 digital images
  • Around 25,000 PhD theses available digitally

The CRC are based on the 6th floor, Main Library.

Searching effectively

While it can be tempting to launch straight into a search, knowing how to search effectively and planning your search before you begin wil save you time and ensure your search results are relevant.


It can be useful to think about the following:


  • What is your research question?
    • What questions do you need answers to? What are the gaps in your information?
    • Don't be too broad or too narrow with your topic, it has to be manageable.
    • Do you have any limits to your search?
      • Time period
      • Geographical location
      • Language
  • Keywords are key
    • What are the key concepts you need to research and what keywords or phrases can be used to describe these.
    • Don't just stick to the first ones you think of (which you will generally get from your research question). 
      ​You need to also think of:
      • Synonyms
      • Related terms
      • Alternative spellings and variations in terminology
      • Variations in terminology over time
      • Abbreviations
      • Technical terms
  • Where to search?
    • The databases on this page are all recommended for History but "history" is a broad subject area and you need to look at the databases description to see if it is relevant for your particular topic.While some databases might just cover history in general others will cover specific time periods or countries or events, etc., not all will be relevant for your search.
    • However, you will often have to search more than one database to ensure you don't miss any key papers or documents. While there is crossover between the databases each will also have unique material.
  • Better searching
    • Use boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT) to combine your keywords and phrases together to produce better search results.
      • AND
        Allows you to narrow your search results. By using AND you're telling the database to only bring back search results if they feature all keywords.
      • OR
        Allows you to broaden your search results. By using OR you're telling the database to brin gback search results if they feature any of the keywords.
      • NOT
        Allows you to narrow your search results by excluding keywords from your search. NOT should be used with caution and isn't widely used in humanities.
  • Improving your search results
    • Whether you are getting too few or too many results or if your results don't seem that relevant there are ways to improve your results by using just some of these options:
      • Phrase searching
      • Field searching
      • Truncation and wildcards
      • Chaining

Useful further resources

Searching for and using primary sources

Some useful tips if trying to search for primary source documents and material using the digital primary source databases:

  • Do some background reading before you start searching the primary source databases
    • The more you know about key events, people, laws and common terminology used during the time period you are researching the more successful your search will be.
  • Keywords are key
    • What keywords are you going to use for your search?
      • Is there alternative terminology that could be used for these e.g. synonyms, alternative spellings, variant terminology, etc?
      • What was the terminology being used during the period you are researching?
    • Remember your keywords may need to include people, locations or events related to your area of research.
  • Limit your search to specific time periods
    • Sometimes useful to start with a broader time period and then narrow it down.
  • Depending on your research area it is likely you will have to use more than one database
    • This is where the cross-searching options come in useful but they will only search material provided by one publisher at a time.

You may find it useful to watch this presentation on Finding historical documents and primary sources online, which covers the range of primary source databases available at the Library and how to access them, search techniques and tips to search and explore the databases, and common issues to be aware of when using these databases. This presentation was done for the Historical Research: Skills & Sources (online) course.

These are just a selection of the books available to you that detail extensively how to use primary source material:

You might also be interested in an example of not using primary sources correctly, or at least someone misinterpreting the information provided in original primary source documents.

You can listen to the full episode on the BBC website:

Accessing material not in the library collection

If the library does not have what you want then there are different ways of getting access to the material:

The Inter-Library Loan (ILL) Service: 

This allows you to request material either held at distant university library sites including the  University Collections Facility, or material not held by the university. 

Request a book image

Book Recommendations: 

If you are unable to find the book that you need for your studies then use the Student Request a Book (RaB) service to recommend a purchase.

Visit another library: 

It may be possible (and sometimes quicker) to visit another library to get access to the item you require. Some reciprocal schemes and agreements allow our staff and students access to some other libraries


For further help or advice contact your Academic Support Librarian (ASL):

SAGE Research Methods

SAGE Research Methods is a great resource to use when you are planning and conducting your research.

While it's more aimed at the Social Sciences it covers key research methodology topics that are applicable across subject areas. It includes books, case studies, videos, datasets and much more.

SAGE Research Methods also includes a project planner designed to guide you through a research project.