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University of Wollongong Australia

Finding historical information

Learn how to find historical source material and where to find it.

About biographies and biographical information

What you can learn from this page:

  • How to search for biographies of well-known and less well-known people
  • How to search for biographies relating to particular professions or themes
  • Which catalogues and databases are useful for searching biographies.

Types of biographies

A biography tells you a story about a person’s life, personality, character, attitudes, or impact on their community and broader society. It can talk about their childhood, education, career, family relationships and friendships.

There are three main types of biography:

  • A biography is where the author writes about someone else’s life (usually someone who is very well known such as a historical figure, a prominent world leader or a famous celebrity)
  • An autobiography is where the author writes about their own life (usually narrating their lifetime story) 
  • A memoir is a specific type of autobiography, where a writer or speaker focuses on particular aspects of their life, such as key events or relationships. Examples of ‘memoirs’ can include diaries, letters, interviews, and oral histories.

It’s important to understand that:

  • Longer biographies are often published or produced as a single work.
  • Shorter biographies and profiles are usually published within collections of personal stories, anecdotes, reminiscences and recollections.

How to search for biographies

Searching by individual names

  • Search on any likely name variations, including abbreviations, popular nicknames and pseudonyms. e.g.
    • Bob Hawke is formally referred to as “Robert J Hawke”
    • 'Bill' or 'Will' are popular nicknames for William. Older letters or newspaper articles sometimes abbreviated William as "Wm."
    • Edward Dunlop is commonly known by the nickname "Weary Dunlop"
    • Elizabeth Jessie Hickman had the alias or pseudonym "The Lady Bushranger".
  • Add appropriate keywords. e.g.
    • Hawke AND (biography OR autobiography OR memoir)

Searching by professions or topics

When you don't have a specific person's name:

  • Search for relevant professions or occupations,  e.g. artists, teachers, nurses
  • Search for broader theme keywords, e.g. wartime, colonial explorers

Then:

  • Add appropriate keywords to find biographical information. e.g.
    • nurse* AND (biograph* OR autobiograph*)
    • artist* AND memoir*
    • (soldier* OR “prisoners of war”) AND “personal narrative” (library catalogues generally use this phrase to describe wartime biographies)
    • (Qantas OR stewardess*) AND anecdote*

No results?

Try some of these more specific terms, especially when searching for older or more obscure people or topics. Not all books have the word 'biography' or 'memoir' in their title or catalogue description.

For examples of written recollections try:

  • (diar* OR letter* OR correspondence OR account* OR travel* OR notebook* OR observations) AND ("women explorer*")

For examples of verbal recollections try:

  • ("oral histor*" OR interview* OR reminisc* OR recollect* OR anecdote*) AND Illawarra

Catalogues and databases for biographies

Use the following catalogues and databases to search for influential, nationally or internationally known people. If your person is less well known or known only in their local area try local newspaper sources.

Additional biographical resources

These databases are not full-text but they are still extremely helpful as they will give you all the necessary publication details that you need to search for the item using UOW databases, local library catalogues or to request the item via Document Delivery.

Further resources

A-Z databases |  A-Z journals |  Catalogue |  Learning Co-Op

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