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How to Use Online History Search Sources?

Dealing with information sources is an integral part of academic work at all levels, whether you are a high school student, a college undergraduate, or a full-fledged professor. It does not matter what discipline you study – you cannot write a paper of your own without referring to the existing body of work by other authors who studied your topic previously. No academic paper can exist in isolation – even if your research is purely innovative and built upon your own insights, having no references to works by other scholars makes it look suspicious. In no area of research is it as obvious as in history, for sources of information are the main object of study of this discipline. This, naturally, means that any student of history has to be particularly good at working with sources. So, how does one do it? In this article, we will cover some of the most important things you have to know to make your writing essays on history a little bit more manageable.

Not All Sources and Search Engines Are Created Equal

Google may be your main tool for searching for stuff online, but it is a bit lacking when it comes to finding scholarly sources you can actually cite in your essay. While these days students are usually not prohibited from citing websites, most teachers and professors still treat them as second-rate sources at best. If you want your essay to be treated seriously, you need high-grade sources: preferably, peer-reviewed publications in scholarly magazines, although books by well-reputed publishers are also acceptable. You can find some of them through Google, but the only alternative to going to an actual library is to fire up one of many specialized scholarly search engines.

Look for a Specialized Engine Based on What You Need

While some scholarly search engines (like Google Scholar or Microsoft Academic) are universal and let you look through the entire body of scientific literature, you may have better luck using more narrowly specialized tools. Firstly, they may return some results that may be unavailable through universal search engines. Secondly, they are specifically tailored for their subject matter, and you have a better chance of finding what you need. For example, David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, as is clear from its name, is your go-to place if you need access to an old map. It lets you look not only for specific maps by names. You can also, for example, overlay historic maps on modern ones or other historic maps and do many other things. is a prime source of military historical records. History and Politics Out Loud is a collection of audio recordings related to history. The list can go on. In other words, if you know what you are looking for, try using a specialized search engine before you go to a universal one.

Paid Search Engines Are not Always Necessary

“How am I supposed to do my essay online if I have to pay to get my hands on the materials I need for my research?” This or something along these lines is a common concern for history students, as their work often calls for the use of primary sources (such as original documents and books) that may not be easy to get access to. However, those who have been working with sources for a long time know that you can find enough free search tools and publicly available sources online to suit most of your needs. You will probably easily stumble upon a paid search engine or database tool that can be immensely helpful in your work but do not be in a hurry to pay for the subscription. Look around. Ask about it on specialized forums. Chances are, you will find what you need without having to pay for it.

Check if Your School or College Provides Free Access to Paid Engines

Many schools and colleges give you free access to certain research tools as long as you are enrolled in one of their courses. If you do not know if this is the case, you should go to your university library and ask there. Chances are, you have at least one high-grade scholarly search engine at your disposal.

Learn the Commands Used by Search Engines

Different search engines use different sets of commands to make finding stuff easier, so make sure to get acquainted with the list relevant for the tool you use. Surprisingly, a huge share of students completely forgoes the use of these commands, while they can significantly improve the quality of their search and speed up their work. Here are a few examples of the most common commands:

  • Truncation (usually an asterisk). If you type in “war*”, the engine will return the results with “war”, “warlike”, “warfare”, “wary”, “wartime” and other words that start with the root “war”;
  • Wildcards (usually a question or an exclamation mark). If you type in “civili?ation”, the engine will return the results with both “civilization” and “civilisation”;
  • “And”. Unlike in Google and other such search engines, research databases usually do not work with full sentences. If you type a sentence in them, they typically treat it as a requirement that all these words should be right next to each other. To show that you need results that have several keywords irrespectively of their placement, you have to use “and” command, e.g., “Mesopotamia and religion and agriculture” will return all the results that contain all these three terms;
  • “Or”. This command shows that two or more terms can be used interchangeably. For example, “Mesopotamia” or “Sumer”. While their meaning is not identical, it works for the purpose of finding the right sources.

Use Your Imagination

Finally, make use of your imagination. Think of different ways to express your topic. Consider different combinations of commands. In most cases, the database is bound to have the information you need – you just have to be creative when defining your search terms. Use the tips listed here, and your research will turn out alright!