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Archival Research in Europe

Search for Primary Sources during a Literature Review

Terminology: Primary Sources

The term archive describes the administrative unit taking responsibility for fiscal and legal considerations in preserving and giving access to the archival material.

The term “primary sources” describes the value of the materials from the point of view of the researcher as “his/her/their” evidence and witness to the event or phenomenon being studied.

Primary Source: "In scholarship, a document or record containing firsthand information or original data on a topic, used in preparing a derivative work. Primary sources include original manuscripts, periodical articles reporting original research or thought, diaries, memoirs, letters, journals, photographs, drawings, posters, film footage, sheet music, songs, interviews, government documents, public records, eyewitness accounts, newspaper clippings, etc." (ODLIS). In literary research, the author's works are considered a primary source.

Finding Primary Sources through Background Research. Tracing Sources Back to Archives and Collections.

Reference Works

Biography and Bio-Bibliography

  • For notable figures, a bio-bibliography will include notes on who holds the Nachlass/Vorlass, Fonds, or other materials. Start with the comprehensive biographical databases at Duke, like Biography In Context ; Biography Reference Center ; World Biographical Information System Online (WBIS Online) . You can also use Worldcat  to combine the name of a person with the word biography / bio-bibliography.
  • Explore Linked Data, for example, information based on the VIAF authority files. Look for links to data in the search results and catalog record. Authority files show you all the versions of how a name is spelled; they associate works with an author, and they establish relationships between authors.

General Bibliographies

Subject Databases (Bibliographic Indexes)

  • Refined search vocabulary will lead to articles about primary sources. Use the native interface of the subject database. Go to Research Databases click ALL SUBJECTS to open the drop down menu, and find databases by discipline.

Published Editions and Historical Critical Editions of Source Materials and Works

  • Check footnotes, foreword, bibliography, etc. to see if the editor describes the archive the materials came from, as well as the amount of unpublished materials still available in that archive. Historical Critical Editions are particularly meticulous in documenting the context of a work. Network with the editorial team, if possible.

Blogs & Listservs

  • OpenEdition - look at the academic blogs, find people who can give practical local advice
  • H-Net, Listservs
  • Twitter
  • Academic Society websites; many National Libraries of the World  websites explain organization of information.

Who, What, Where, When; Formulating Theories

Who is the likely producer or author of the source you seek? What kinds of materials did they produce to reach their particular audience? When did they produce the source, and what events or phenomena were going on at the time? Brainstorming these types of questions in a deliberate way can help you identify the types of archives you might need to look for:

  • State and federal archives
  • Communal
  • Church or religious
  • Nobility, Family, Genealogy
  • Economic
  • Parliament, parties, organizations
  • Press and Media
  • Education institutions or research centers
  • Web archives
  • Special collections with materials of various provenance
  • Other

Periodization, Chronology, Historiography

Databases for research often mostly serve large, distinct blocks of time; this means that each block of time has a completely distinct set of research tools:

  • 8th century BC to 500 Classical Antiquity
  • 500 - 1450 Middle Ages
  • 1450 - 1750 Early Modern
  • 1750 - present

For example, the database Historical Abstracts focuses on the history of the world from the 15th century onward. Historical Abstracts is for international research and does not include American History. US history is covered in America: History & Life. Neither Historical Abstracts nor America: History & Life cover Medieval Studies. Finding Medieval Texts in Western Manuscript Books  necessitates a different set of resources. Considerations of chronology are also important in open databases. Take the German State Archive (Bundesarchiv) as an example.

  • Federal Republic / Bundesrepublik Deutschland (ab 1949)
  • East Germany / Deutsche Demokratische Republik (1949-1990)
  • Allied Occupation Zones / Alliierte Besatzungszonen (1945-1949)
  • Third Reich / Deutsches Reich: Nationalsozialismus (1933-1945)
  • Weimar Republic / Deutsches Reich: Weimarer Republik (1918-1933)
  • German Empire / Deutsches Reich: Kaiserreich (1871-1918) einschließlich Norddeutscher Bund (1867-1871)
  • German Confederation / Deutscher Bund (1815-1866) und Provisorische Zentralgewalt (1848/49)
  • Holy Roman Empire / Heiliges Römisches Reich (1495-1806)

Add “Chronology”, “Historiography” as search terms to your query in catalogs, for example:

  • "Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945) -- Historiography"
  • "Bible -- Chronology -- Early works to 1800"

Refining Search Vocabulary

Primary source types vary by discipline. What is the primary source that would lend evidence to your research? Adding a type of source to your search string helps refine the results.

Types of Primary Sources

  • Archival materials, Archives
  • Atlases, Maps
  • Autobiography
  • Bibliography
  • Broadsides
  • Case Studies
  • Charts, Diagrams, Statistics, Data
  • Census
  • Computer file
  • Concordances
  • Correspondence, Letters,
  • Diaries
  • Government Document
  • Historic Journal, Newspaper, Popular Magazine
  • Historical Critical Edition
  • Incunabula or Early Modern Print
  • Institutional or Corporate Records, including Publisher Records
  • Manuscripts (can mean Medieval Manuscript, drafts of Primary Work, Handwritten Docs)
  • Original Expression in a Special Format (pictorial works - photograph - motion picture -audio file - illustrations, etc.)
  • Published primary work, like novel, drama, poetry, theory, philosophy
  • Sermons, Speeches
  • Nachlass (Papers of a notable figure)

Building Search Strings

The more detailed you search string is, the more relevant your results will be. Here is an excerpt from a guide at MIT.


Format, (type of material), including books, computer files, maps, mixed materials, serials, scores, sound recordings, and visual materials. If you already know the format of your source, select it after you enter your search string.

Expert Search in Worldcat

Whenever possible, use the subscribed version of Worldcat at Duke. Investigate the guide to Worldcat Expert Search. In the subscribed interface, you can use the research vocabulary you have developed (names, places, keywords, LC subjects, etc.) and click “Archival Material” below the search mask; you can also use the word “sources” in combination with research terms.

Digital Libraries of Aggregated Primary Sources

Digital Libraries and other reproductions of primary sources are substitutes that help explore primary sources from your home base at Duke. It is increasingly important for grant applications that you understand the digital landscape in your field of research comprehensively. Only with that knowledge can you make the case for physically traveling to an archive in the US or abroad.

Subscription Databases that are Digital Libraries of Aggregated Primary Sources

Duke Research Databases are tagged by subject and type. Click All Subjects and select the relevant discipline to research the scholarship; Click All Database Types to scan 319 Primary Source Collections.

Public Domain (free to user, open) Digital Libraries of Aggregated Primary Sources

There is no central index of open digital libraries; you will need to investigate primary source databases available in the public domain. Some major starting points are listed below.

Digital libraries can be scoped to a period, subject, or format, or they can be more general. Here are the broadest full-text resources

KIT also demonstrates that, even within Europe, some platforms are enclosed and do not share metadata with Internet search engines; for example, you will always have to remember to search Gallica, the digital library of France, separately. Talk to a subject librarian about relevant digital libraries for your discipline or region.

Duke Subscription Databases versus Public Domain Digital Libraries

The Duke Libraries database finder only lists databases that Duke subscribes to, and there is no centralized free online index for public domain libraries. The Gale directory of databases is a good start for researching electronic or digital content. Subject librarians can help further. Every world region has directories for public domain digital libraries. For example, if you read German, you can use the German directory of databases and digital projects in the German union catalog for all e-content; Datenbank InfoSystem (DBIS)

Below are five examples out of dozens of Western European Studies databases:

Duke Subscription Databases

Public Domain Databases

Early European Books

Archives Unbound ( 69 collections, many European Primary Docs)

British History Online

Early English Books Online (EEBO)

Making of Modern Law: Legal Treatises 1800-1926

Austrian Books Online Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek

Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek

Europeana digital content from across Europe

Gallica French National Library (BNF)

Koninklijke Bibliotheek Netherlands


Microfilm Collections

Before digital libraries, entire collections were microfilmed to give researchers remote access. Duke owns such collections, and Duke collaborates to buy such collections together with the Center for Research Libraries (CRL). Collections that are held as microfilm at CRL can be loaned to Duke patrons. Work with a subject librarian on Interlibrary Requests.

The following title is an example of a microfilm collection held locally. Incunabula, the printing revolution in Europe, 1455-1500.  Reading:  Research Publications, 1995-1997.  microfiche and guide. Perkins/Bostock Microforms  Microfiche M9738  and Med Ctr Hist Lock Stks Grp qII   Medical Incunabula (medical incunabula only).

Advanced Search Skills

Internet Search Engines” offer an expert search just like databases do. The Google Power Searching tutorials by Google Search Education Online and books on Internet searching are useful in developing good strategies for an academic Internet search.

For searching “databases”, whether you are using catalogs, primary sources databases, or subject indexes, learn to search databases effectively. Investigate the following:

  • Advanced search screen
  • Boolean operators
  • Truncation & wild card
  • Keywords vs. subjects
  • Library of Congress subjects
  • Refine and repeat strategies
  • Phrase searching
  • Field searching
  • Stop Words
  • Limiting with filters
  • index or thesaurus (internal to database)

Proximity Operators in Electronic full-text Collections

Proximity searching is a search method that allows you to specify how close one word or phrase that you enter should be to another in the texts retrieved by your search. For example, a search for Galileo [Proximity Operator] 5 inquisition --- will retrieve all texts in which the word “Galileo” occurs within 5 words of the word “inquisition.” You can use this search to find if someone cites letters or diaries in association with a person’s name, and more.

Not all databases allow this; here are examples of Duke databases that allow this specialized search:

  • Accessible Archives Complete
  • ACLS Humanities e-Books
  • Adam Matthew
  • Cambridge
  • Ebrary
  • Past Masters
  • Proquest
  • GoogleBooks and Google Scholar

Each database offers a help sheet on this search, for example, EEBO explains how a proximity search is done in their database.