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HIST E-597B: Precapstone: Historical Biography

Research strategies and tools to guide your work

Welcome from your Course Librarian

This resource guide has been designed for students in HIST E-597B,  a Fall 2022 Extension School class taught by Ariane Liazos.

The resources and strategies described on this page are specifically targeted: they represent our first best guesses at where you might find easy and more-or-less-comprehensive access to both the scholarly conversations and primary documents upon which your term project will be built.

Remember that good research is often about following up on hunches, testing out a hypothesis and then seeing where else (or to what else) it leads. You may need to try several search combinations before you strike gold. 

Let me know if questions arise at any point in your project. We'll triage by email or set up a time to meet on Zoom for a personal consultation.  

Enjoy your work! 

Sue Gilroy, Research Librarian, Lamont Library, Room 210

Standard Tools for Locating Biographical Information

American National Biography

Published under the auspices of the American Council of Learned Societies, the ANB provides biographical essays, brief bibliographies, and archival collection information for more than 19,000 individuals from all eras and walks of life.  Living individuals are not included. Harvard Key

Biography and Genealogy Master Index (BGMI)

Searching BGMI enables you to determine which publication to consult for biographical information. As its name implies, BGMI provides citations to nearly 15.4 million biographical sketches that can be found in books and other resources. It covers both contemporary and historical figures throughout the world, often catching those who . For each individual, BGMI provides name, date of birth (and death), and the names and dates of biographical source publications that contain information about the individual.  Harvard Key
This resource brings together in one space, some of the most important and carefully edited reference tools about the Black experience, including key biographical resources like the African American Biographical Database, the Dictionary of African Biography, Black Women in America, and the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography. Harvard Key

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (UK)

The national record of men and women who have shaped British history and culture, worldwide, from the Romans to the 21st century. The Dictionary offers concise, up-to-date biographies written by named, specialist authors. It is overseen by academic editors at Oxford University, UK, and published by Oxford University Press. Also lists archival collections, likeness in the NPG, and wealth at death, when known. Harvard Key

World Biographical Information System (WBIS)

Bills itself as the most comprehensive database of biography in existence. It covers 16th-20th centuries and is multilingual. The biographical archives from 30 countries are reproduced here, from original texts and archival materials. Harvard Key


Key Resources for Identifying Special Collections and Archives


Archive Grid (OCLC) Harvard Key

Directory of State Archives (Council of State Archives)

Guide to Archival Consortia (SAA)

Wikipedia List of Archives (incomplete, but a starting point for identifying sites)

WorldCat (OCLC) Harvard Key

Finding Primary Sources in HOLLIS -- And Beyond


Finding Primary Sources In HOLLIS


Remember that our catalog is old -- in the best sense of the word. You'll find a treasure trove of primary source documents there from all periods, in all languages, and from most parts of the world.

Some tips:

Think about time frame. 

One easy way to find texts and other items that are roughly contemporaneous with your course readings is to modify a HOLLIS search you've run, using the date limiters that appear on the right hand side of the screen.

Load your linguistic dice.

Adding the word "sources" to a keyword search can be useful to find republished collections of primary sources. "Reader," "anthology," "documents" or "documentary" also can work well. ​

Think in terms of genre.

Instead of adding a general word like "sources," run your keyword search in HOLLIS.  Then look for the Form/Genre filter on the left side of the results screen. 

It's here you'll often find the richest variety of primarysources. Form/genre is commonly where you'll see primary sources of these types: correspondence (the official way of describing letters; diaries; exhibitions; speeches; memoirs; notebooks; personal narratives; pictorial works (a traditional way of identifying a collection of images); photographs.

Scour finding aids.

Manuscripts that are held by Harvard libraries, like Houghton, will usually have an online finding aid linked to their HOLLIS records. Finding aids are detailed item-by-item descriptions of everything in a particular collection. Typically, finding aids will also provide contextual information, like biography, scope/content notes, preferred citation methods, etc. Finding aid URLs appear below the title in a HOLLIS manuscript record. 

Think backward from a secondary source.

​Remember that the secondary literature you find  (scholarly journals and books) will themselves be built on primary source materials.  Canvass the bibliographies and footnotes; if the primary documents exist in a published form (rather than being unique to an archive you may not have access to), consider tracking them down at Harvard (if you're close to Cambridge) or (if you're not) at a library near you. 



Databases of Historical Newspapers and Periodicals (Examples)


ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Time coverage varies; generally, from paper's beginning to late 20th or early 2000s. This database allosw searching across U.S. major dailies, a collection of important African American newspapers, and some international titles, like the Times of India. Harvard Key


America's Historical Newspapers: Search across 22 news databases with contents from all the states and territories.  Coverage from the 17th century. Harvard Key

Chronicling America [LOC]: An ongoing, long-term effort to digitize state and local newspapers published between 1777 and 1963.  As well as searching contents, you can also access from here the US Newspaper Directory 1690-present, which comprehensively identifies publications and provides information on where to access them. Harvard Key

Newspaper Good for regional and local newspaper coverage; searching not highly sophisticated, but limiters help and potential for discovery makes it worth the labor. Harvard Key

Gale Newsvault: Users can simultaneously search or browse across multiple databases: 17th, 18th, and 19th-century newspapers, including those from the British Library's important collection; 19th-century UK periodicals, and archives for such UK publications as the Daily Mail,  the Economist, Financial Times, Illustrated London News, Liberty Magazine, the Listener, the Picture Post, and the Times Literary Supplement (TLS). Harvard Key

Ethnic American Newspapers from the Balch Collection, 1799-1971

Search across the contents of 130 ethnic newspapers published in the U.S. in the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries. Created in partnership with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Harvard Key

Hispanic American Newspaper Collections, 1808-1980

Created in cooperation with the University of Houston, this new digital resource represents the single largest compilation of Spanish-language newspapers printed in the U.S. during the 19th and 20th centuries. The distinctive collection features hundreds of titles, including many published bilingually in Spanish and English.

Reader's Guide Retrospective, 1890-1982: A collection of the popular and general interest magazines in circulation in the U.S. and Canada  between the late-19th and late-20th century.  Harvard Key

Accessible Archives:Wide ranging collections of newsppaers and magazines. Harvard Key

American Periodicals  [1740 - c. 1940]  Harvard Key

Eighteenth Century Journals: A Portal to Newspapers and Periodicals, 1685-1835 Harvard Key

Databases of Law and Legislation


ProQuest Congressional 

A source for legislation, hearings, witness testimony, reports, and more. Harvard Key

U.S. Serial Congressional Serial Set, 1817-1994

The U.S. Congressional Serial Set is an incomparably rich, yet in the past a largely untapped collection of primary source material detailing all aspects of American history. has proven invaluable to the research of U.S. political, social, cultural, military and ethnic history, as well as international relations, exploration expeditions across the country and throughout the world, genealogy, commerce, industrial development and much more. Its contents come not only from the U.S. Congress, but also include key Executive Department publications and publication series. Harvard Key

(Examples) Databases of Digitized Primary Source Collections


ProQuest History Vault Harvard Key

Nineteenth Century Collections Online Harvard Key

HathiTrust Digital Library [be sure to login: Harvard University]

 (Library Edition) Harvard Key


An extensive collection of vital records, directories, censuses, military records, and other material from the United States and Canada, intended for genealogical research. Includes fully-indexed, full-text images of United States federal census returns, 1790-1950, plus access to historical documents and photos, local narratives, oral histories, indexes and other resources in over 30,000 databases that span from the 1500s to the 2000s.

Always use the Harvard subscription to Ancestry – it removes the paywall (and thus, means that you have all the benefits of full access to the resource's contents without the financial expense). has a suite of research guides and learning tools to help you use the database well.


If you are interested in pursuing African American heritage, Ancestry’s guide to African American Family Search  is essential reading.


Digital Primary Sources Online is an extensive list, maintained by Harvard librarians Fred Burchsted and Anna Assogba.  You may find good leads there, with a little digging.

Anna and Fred are the Library's History Liaisons. Their expertise is great. You can contact them directly with questions or for a follow-up consult:

HOLLIS Refresher for Capstone Projects

Using HOLLIS Well: Three Considerations


1.  Understand what HOLLIS is.

HOLLIS combines the extensive contents of our library catalog, the record every item owned by every Harvard Library with those of another, large and multidisciplinary database of journal, newspaper, and magazine articles. 

The system default is to search both of these large databases, but you can make different choices (excluding one or the other) before or after you execute a search. 


2. Know how to work HOLLIS.

Creating search strings with some of the techniques below can help you get better results up front. 


 3.  Take Control of Your Search Results.

While the broad and panoramic approach to searching HOLLIS can be mind-opening, you can sometimes find yourself overwhelmed by either the numbers or types of results your search returns.

When that happens, try one of these easy tricks:

  • Limit your Everything search results set just to the items listed in the LIBRARY CATALOG.

Your numbers will immediately get smaller. Keep in mind, though, that the results will be heavily weighted toward book-length studies.

  • Limit your Everything search results set to items that are identified as PEER REVIEWED ARTICLES.

You'll eliminate newspaper and magazine materials as well as books, of course, but you'll also raise the visibility of scholarly journal articles in what displays. 

  • Think about limiting your results to publications from the last 5, 10, 15, or 20 years.

By doing so you'll get a snapshot of the most recent research trends and scholarly approaches in a field (or around a particular issue).


Scan and Deliver

When an article you need is available in a print journal at Harvard but not online, you can ask us to make a PDF for you through a service called Scan and Deliver.

We'll send you an email when it's ready for downloading, typically between 1 and 4 days after you place the request. Scan and Deliver is a free service to Harvard affiliates.

Scan and Deliver is also an option if you want up to two chapters of any Harvard-owned book digitized for your use.  

NOTE: Initiate Scan and Deliver requests through HOLLIS.



When you're far from Cambridge, identifying books in print and on shelves in Harvard's library buildings can seem like a futile exercise. You can, however, often get your hands on items your find in HOLLIS even if you live many miles away from the Yard.


WorldCatthis is a database of library catalogs and useful for identifying college, university, and other library collections that are in your vicinity.  Search for the title; WorldCat will attempt to geolocate, but you can also enter your ZIPCODE to identify your options.

With WorldCat, you're going beyond the BorrowDirect consortium and beyond our reciprocal lending agreements.  However, as long as any of the area libraries allow you in (often a phone call or a scan of the website will clarify policy), you'll be in luck!

Check the catalog of the large PUBLIC LIBRARY in your area.  Depending on the region, the size of the library, its mission, and its funding, a local public library may have a significant research component to its collection (The Boston Public Library at Copley Square is a prime example). 

Ask your local library about an INTERLIBRARY LOAN.  Libraries routinely borrow from each other on behalf of their patrons; if you have a library card, you should be able to request it (or have a librarian do so).  ILL can take a bit of time, however. You might wait a week or a bit more before the item arrives. Some places charge a small fee for the service. 

Borrow Direct Plus: currently enrolled Extension School students who live near a member of this library consortium can obtain a card that allows access to the collections and privileges similar to those at Harvard libraries.  

Participating members: Brown U, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Duke, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, U of Chicago, U Penn, Yale

If you live close by the college or university from which you graduated, ask about ALUMNI PRIVILEGES there


While You're Searching

  • Chat with a librarian.  Access via the right-side blue button on library pages.  Hours vary on Fridays and weekends, but Mondays-Thursdays, someone is available 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.


For More Complicated Questions about HOLLIS (or your research needs)

  • Use our Ask a Librarian page to submit a question by emial OR set up an appointment with a research librarian.  Normal turnaround time is 24 hours (or less). 


Ways to Help Yourself 

Tips for Finding Full-Text of Articles

1. Google Scholar Settings

One simple change can turn Google Scholar into what's effectively a Harvard database -- with links to the full-text of articles that the library can provide. Here's what to do: 

  • Look to the left of the GS screen and click on the "hamburger" (); then click on  
  • Look for "Library Links."  Then type Harvard University into the search box and save your choice.  As long as you allow cookies, the settings will keep.  

2. The Harvard Library Bookmark

A bookmark you set-up save to your toolbar, and then click on when you come across an article citation and want to determine if Harvard gives you access. you can create.

Directions for creating it are here:

 3. Lean Library

 A browser plugin that (nearly always) identifies digital availability of items at Harvard and runs automatically as you search books and articles. 

See it as an alternative to the Bookmark (above) Some users find Lean Library's pop-ups intrusive and distracting, however, despite its convenience.