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Finding historical information

Learn where and how to find secondary and primary historical sources.

About biographies and biographical information

What you can learn from this page:

  • How to search for biographies of well-known people and less well-known people (both recent and historical)
  • How to search for biographies relating to particular professions or themes
  • Which databases and catalogues 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 be aware that:

  • Longer biographies are often published or produced as a single work.
  • Shorter biographies are usually published within collections of personal stories, anecdotes, reminiscences and recollections.
  • Biographical profiles (summary details about a person's life/background) are often included on relevant websites.

How to search for biographies

Searching by individual names

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

Searching by themes

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

  • Search for relevant professions or occupations,  e.g. artists, teachers, nurses
  • Search for relevant broader theme keywords, e.g. women, indigenous, wartime, activism


  • Add appropriate keywords to focus on looking for biographical information. e.g.
    • nurse* AND (biograph* OR autobiograph*)
    • (indigenous OR aborigin*) AND (biograph* OR autobiograph*)
    • artist* AND memoir*
    • (soldier* OR “prisoners of war”) AND “personal narrative” (catalogues often use this phrase when describing wartime biographies)
    • travel* AND anecdote*

No results?

Try some of these more specific terms, especially when searching for very old references or more obscure names 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

Databases and catalogues for biographies

Use the following databases and catalogues to search for nationally or internationally well known individuals. If your person is less well known outside their immediate area (geographic and/or subject wise) try more localised news sources or subject specific sources.

Don't forget to try a simple Google search to see what biographical information may be freely available on authoritative websites. e,g. Nelson Mandela, artist Ben Quilty

Additional biographical resources

Databases like this 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