This guide is a general introduction to resources in the Western Washington University Libraries for the study of history.
Please contact the History Librarian, Michael Taylor, for additional assistance, including one-on-one research consultations, course-integrated instruction, and purchase requests.
Search for books by using the library catalog and following the steps below.
Step 1: To locate books available on campus, select the WWU tab:
Be aware, however, that many more books are available through other libraries in the Northwest. These books can usually be delivered to you in 3-5 days. To search these holdings, plus everything at WWU, select the Summit tab.
Step 2: Refine your results by using the limiters in the left-hand column.
Sorting the results by date (oldest first or newest first) can also be a good way to locate primary sources or recent scholarship:
Research tip: Search results overwhelming? One easy way to locate reliable sources is to find one or two books or articles that are closely related to your topic and then "mine" their notes or bibliographies. In other words, simply look and see what sources scholars have used, then use them yourself.
One way to locate articles on historical topics is to use OneSearch (accessed by the Summit + Articles tab on the library homepage):
Be aware that this will likely return an extremely large number of results. To refine your search, use the limiters in the left-hand column of the search results page.
You may find it is easier to search individually through full-text article databases to reduce the number of results. Major databases containing history journals include:
What is an "article"?
So you have to write a history paper... where do you start?
Students often want to start with articles because they are short. But what do we mean when we use the word "article"?
When professors talk about articles, they are usually referring to academic journal articles. If your professor tells you to find one of these, do it. But if you are free to choose, keep in mind that these kinds of articles are often written at an advanced level on specialized topics for professional historians. Students new to the subject may find them hard to understand.
Magazine and newspaper articles, on the other hand, while quick to read and easy to follow, are not necessarily reliable as scholarly resources. They can, however, be excellent primary sources, depending on how you use them. For example, an article in Sports Illustrated on the controversy over Native American mascots would be an acceptable primary source because it documents popular opinion on the subject.
What about Wikipedia articles? Although it is generally not a good idea to cite Wikipedia in a research paper, if an article is well written, there is nothing wrong with looking at its footnotes or suggestions for further reading. This can help you find sources for your research. Just remember that you will need to evaluate their quality and viewpoint like anything else.
Sometimes you might just want a quick introduction to a subject. If so, an encyclopedia article can be a great place to start, especially one in a specialized encyclopedia. For example, if you are writing a paper on Catherine the Great, look at something like the Encyclopedia of Russian History. See also the "further reading" section at the end of each article for scholarly sources to cite. Many encyclopedias are available digitally at Western through Oxford Reference Online.
Also try reference works like the Cambridge Histories Online. These contain brief, scholarly essays written for general readers, and can provide a good overview of a subject.
Researchers at WWU have access to various databases of primary sources and other historical materials.
Major resources are listed below. A more comprehensive list is available here, but be aware that because of the interdisciplinary nature of historical research, you may want to look at databases in other subject areas (click here for a complete list).
America: History and Life
ca. 1,800 journals dating back to 1895
American Antiquarian Society Periodicals
Major periodicals related to America, 1684-1912
Early English Books Online
Virtually every book printed in English, 1473-1700
National Archives and Records Administration
Full-text access to various U.S. government material
HIstorical publications of the U.S. Congress
U.S. Serial Set Digital Collection
Government publications, 1789-1969
Visual History Archive Online (Shoah Foundation)
Survivors accounts of the Holocaust and other genocides
See also the separate guide to Historical Newspapers.
Free Digital Libraries
The following digital libraries offer free access to vast amounts of historical material:
Hundreds of smaller, regional digital libraries exist. For lists of the most significant resources, see:
A great free resource for historical maps is the David Rumsey Map Collection.
To locate archival material in repositories around the world, try searching in the databases below:
Keep in mind that these databases only contain brief descriptions and do not list every single item or person referred to in the collection. You may have to contact the archive and see if a more detailed finding aid or inventory is available.
Also be aware that many institutions have not fully cataloged their holdings and that some repositories, especially small historical societies and private or business archives, have not reported their holdings to these databases. Sometimes a simple web search is the easiest way to find archival material.
For detailed information on WWU's archival holdings related to the Pacific Northwest, please visit the Heritage Resources website.
Encyclopedia articles, especially those in specialized encyclopedias, can be great places to get a quick introduction to a subject. Articles in these types of publications often have a "further reading" section at the end that can help you find more in-depth resources.
Other reference works, such as the Cambridge Histories Online, contain brief, scholarly essays for general readers and are good ways to quickly familiarize yourself with a topic.
Oxford Reference Online is the best source at WWU for online encyclopedias. To locate additional reference sources, try searching in the library catalog and then limiting your search to encyclopedias or reference books under "Genres/Form" in the left-hand column on the page of search results.
Getting Unstuck in the Archives
Have you settled on a research topic and located a few primary sources but don’t know what to do next? Here are some basic tips to consider when feeling overwhelmed by archival research.
Ask an expert. Get feedback from someone who knows a lot about your topic.
Talk to a librarian or archivist. They're here to help and might know about a great source that would improve your paper.
Be flexible. Don’t get stuck on the topic you set out to research. Sometimes it's better to let the sources that are available suggest a topic rather than struggling to find the perfect source.
Ask questions. Can’t figure out what to do with a source? Make a list of questions you'd like to know the answer to. Try to find the answers and see if they provide clarity about your research topic and/or another direction to go in.
Brainstorm. Find a blank sheet of paper. Write down any ideas about your topic that come to mind. After ten minutes, scratch out the worst ideas and try to develop the rest into something you can use.
Find more primary sources. If you have enough documents to work with, it is rare that you cannot weave them into some sort of story. But if there simply aren’t enough sources, you might need to pick a new topic.
Find more secondary sources. You should already have looked at scholarly books and articles to help you tie your sources/ideas into a larger concept, but if you’re really stuck, keep looking. (Tip: see the notes and bibliographies in these kinds of publications to get ideas for additional sources.)
Understand the debate. Read a variety of secondary sources. Summarize different points of view, interpretations, controversies, etc. Do your primary sources support or refute any aspects of that debate? Do they add anything new to it?
Seek out a variety of primary source formats. Books. Manuscripts. Photographs. Newspapers. Magazines. Maps. Ephemera. Artwork. Music. Recordings. Oral histories. Government documents. Statistics. The physical environment. Even your own personal experiences. There are all kinds of primary sources that you can use to tell a story. Sometimes an “alternative” source is what you need to help you see things from a different angle.
Connect the dots. As you look through the sources, look for ways that documents might be related. Use your imagination!
Don’t read every document word for word. At least not at first. Look through everything quickly to form a general impression of what’s there. Then go back and zero in on documents that stand out.
Look left, look right. Historical events never exist in isolation. If you have hit a roadblock, it might be helpful to ask questions like: What led up to this event? What consequences did it have? What else was happening at the same time? Did local events relate to events elsewhere?
Think outside the box. Depending on what context you view a primary source in, it may have more than one story to tell. For example, if you gave the same source to a historian, a literary scholar, an artist, a psychologist, and a scientist, they would all probably have different opinions about its significance. Imagine you are working in a different discipline. That may provide new insight and a way around a research roadblock.
Pick a new audience. Most of us find it easier to tell stories to one group of people versus another. If you struggle with writing in an academic style, try this: Imagine you are telling a story to a friend or family member, or to a group of children, or are writing a short newspaper article. That might help you decide what your basic points are. You can then flesh out the story in a more formal style of writing with supporting evidence based on primary sources.
Read a book review. Reviews frequently raise questions and/or suggest topics for further investigation. Find a review about a book that's related to your research and see if it gives you any ideas.
Take a break. Putting your research away for a while can often help you see the direction you need to go in.
Delete and rewrite. Even great writers take wrong turns. If something really isn’t working, cut it out and start again.
Admit failure. There is no shame in giving up. Sometimes the best thing to do is to look for a new topic.
Pick a topic that excites you. Students who write papers about things they aren’t interested in usually write bad papers. Even if you don’t really care about the time period of your course, find a subject, theme, person, event, object, etc., from that time period that is meaningful to you. That may not make the research easier, but you will be less likely to give up – and you will definitely have more fun.
William Cronon, “Learning to Do Historical Research” (http://www.williamcronon.net/researching)