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University of Wollongong Australia

Finding historical information

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

Searching collections

What you can learn from this page:

  • Why you need to use appropriate historical language
  • Why you should search and browse by date
  • The importance of searching in multiple places (depending on the sources you need)

Where to start looking

History books are a great place to find historical information.

Books giving historical overviews often republish primary source documents and excerpts and usually also provide extra subject information to help you understand them and the stories they tell. 

A book that bring together lots of different primary sources on a subject is sometimes referred to as a "documentary history", "source book" or "historical record".

Library catalogues, subject databases and digital archives will describe their collections in different ways and with different levels of detail. Some content will overlap, other content will be unique (especially true for rare historical archives!).

Language varies depending on time and circumstance

In order to search for historical sources, it's helpful to recognise a range of relevant terms, understand their meaning and any special significance they had in the past.

Popular terms, phrases and spellings can change over the years and vary in different countries. For example, "First World War" only came into use around the start of the "Second World War" – before that it was sometimes called “The Great War".

Names may often have been written as abbreviations or referred to in colloquial or slang terms. For example, variations on the name "William" may be 'Will", "Bill" or "Wm." or someone might only be referred to by their nickname, e.g. "Edward Dunlop" is commonly known as "Weary Dunlop". 

Limit by publication date for better results

To find contemporary primary sources try limiting the publication date range. This can help to narrow your results for specific events or eras.

For example, limiting the date range to 1939-1945 will help you find primary sources published during the Second World War.

Activity & self-assessment

What historical language do you need to use to get appropriate search results? What are some good search strategies?