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Primary Sources

Online library support for primary source research

Using online primary sources

There is a wealth of online primary source material available, and this can seem overwhelming if you are not sure where to start.

Use the guidance below to help you locate the sources you need. 





In this tutorial, you will learn how to:

- Find and access collections of online primary sources

- Locate specific primary sources using effective search strategies




You might start out with the basics of a concept, e.g. Women in early modern England. This video demonstrates how you might go about finding material for your topic: (5.19 mins):

Summary: ways to search


Primary Sources guide

Use this guide to help you find the primary sources you need. Collections are grouped by geographical region, by time period and by theme.




A-Z DatabasesA-Z Database List

All of the primary source collections are also listed in the A-Z Databases list. If you know the name of the collection you want to access, you can go straight there and search for it, or find it in the alphabetical list.





Search across collections

Some of our individual primary source collections are just one part of a much bigger collection available from the same provider, and you can search across those collections. This can save you time and be a great help when you aren't sure where to look. See the section on cross-searchable primary source collections.


Just as you might interrogate an individual primary source, it is also important to critically evaluate an online collection of primary sources as a whole.

You need to find out how the material has been put together, what limitations, gaps and silences might exist, and what impact this might have on your research.




The tutorial explores some of these ideas:

  • records or materials may not exist or be accessible for a variety of reasons
  • existing records or materials may have been subject to the selective processes and intervention of individuals (such as archivists, librarians, publishers, collectors)
  • policies and procedures may affect access to primary sources




Further reading

The following articles are from Adam Matthew Digital's Research Methods Primary Sources

Shaw, M. (2021) Critically reading the digital archive (1)

Berry, D. (2021) Ethical considerations in the archive


This tutorial explores some of the questions you should ask when critically evaluating a source, such as:

  • What form does the source take?
  • Who is the creator?
  • What is the historical context?
  • Who is missing?



Further reading

All of the following are from Adam Matthew Digital's Research Methods Primary Sources

Presnell, J. (2021) How to critically evaluate a source

Dym J. et al. (2021) Weighing sources against each other

Case studies from academics demonstrating how to evaluate different source types; diaries, correspondence, photographs, speeches and many more. 

Find out more about how to use and critically evaluate primary sources in your research using the Adam Matthew Digital Research Methods Primary Sources resource.

It includes:

Learning tools - essays and videos
  • Listen to academics talking about how they use primary resources in their work
  • Understanding and using archives; topics such as 'Why are some sources archived and others not?, ethical considerations and under-represented voices
  • Videos from experts in the field such as archivists, conservators and digitisation specialists
  • Learn about different types of archives: national and regional archives, military, business, film
  • Practical research guides: how to critically evaluate a source, find clues and weigh sources against each other; how to research individuals and marginal groups, how to collate data and organise your research
Case studies

Over 100 case studies focusing on:

  • source types: correspondence, diaries, photographs and many more different types
  • themes: disability, the environment, gender, popular culture, religion, war and more
  • data: case studies from scholars discussing how to find and analyse data from historical documents
Practice sources

Over 300 digitised items from 50 archives around the world, allowing you to practice using historical material.

Learning Centres are available for many of the Gale primary source collections, with more to be added in the future. 

Where available, a link to the Learning Centre for a particular collection will be accessible from the main toolbar, as highlighted in yellow below:

Contained in the Learning Centres are the following sections, with helpful information to make the most of using Gale's primary source collections.



Learn about the particular archive you are looking at, with sample searches and topics to help you think about how to use the archive to explore different research areas.


Search tips and strategies.


How to think critically about the sources you find, with some examples to help you compare and contrast sources.


Some guidance on citing sources, copyright and other considerations.


Use digital tools to analyse data from Gale's primary source collections.



With the Digital Scholar Hub you can:


Build content sets using the primary sources available to you via University of Exeter library. See the Gale Primary Sources collection for details of what you can use.


Make sure your texts are formatted in the way you need them to be for the analysis you want to undertake.


Use a range of digital tools to interrogate documents.

Tools available include:

  • Document Clustering
  • Named Entitty Recognition
  • Ngrams
  • Parts of Speech
  • Sentiment Analysis
  • Topic Modelling
You'll need to create an account before you start to use the Digital Scholar Lab - this is so that you can save your research.


Find out more information and access help guides here.
  • Using Primary Sources by Jonathan Hogg and Laura Balderstone (published by Liverpool University Press and JISC)

An open access e-textbook designed to support students and teachers in the study of primary sources. Includes peer reviewed chapters by academics.

Introductory learning tools, videos and guides

A good starting point for anyone new to using archives

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