Exploring Your Topic

The best way of finding primary sources is often to get an overview of your topic.  Collect names of persons and organizations involved, and words and phrases used in your era (public health was once called hygiene).  These names and terms can be searched in the primary source databases.  Use HOLLIS to tease out the various aspects and ramifications of your topic.  Here are some methods for getting an overview of a topic, bringing out its components and looking at it from a variety of perspectives. Take notes on your reading.

Sources for quick overviews

  • Encyclopedias, dictionaries, and handbooks offer short articles on a topic, often with references.
    • Find them by searching in HOLLIS for your subject plus encyclopedias OR dictionaries OR handbooks OR companion
    • Use HOLLIS Everything Advanced Search to find individual encyclopedia articles. 
      • Do a Title keyword search on your topic
      • On the results page look for Resource Type under Refine Your Results in the right-hand column.
      • Choose Reference entries.
      • For example, such a search for Hip Hop
    • Your topic may be covered in the Oxford Reference Online Premium Collection.
      • Search your topic at the upper right
      • Under Narrow Your Choices: Refine Terms,
      • Change All to Entry Title. 
      • To see the reference books included, choose ‘Browse & search books’ in the left hand column. 
        • Under Refine by Subject, the + signs allow another layer of narrowing.
  • CQ Researcher (1923- ) offers reports on subjects of current (1923- ) interest prepared by the Congressional Research Service. 
    • In Advanced search you can limit by time period (adjust Date range from Anytime to Between)
  •  Oxford Very Short Introductions (over 1200 books) offer very handy way of getting overviews of a wide variety of subjects
  • Databases of secondary source periodical articles usually offer online access to much full text.  This means that you can quickly look over an interesting article, perhaps just reading the abstract (summary), and then go on to something else.
  • Oxford Bibliographies Online are literature guides in several humanities and social sciences areas. They offer annotated lists of secondary source articles on particular subjects. Oxford Bibliographies by subject.  Example: Pan-Africanism.
  • If there were particular people involved of any prominence, there will likely be articles about them in biographical dictionaries which often offer references and give you the names of associates.

HOLLIS Catalog

You can use HOLLIS not only to find sources, but also to explore and analyze your topic of interest. It is worth rummaging around in HOLLIS even before you have focused your topic.

Start with a keyword search in the Library Catalog.

  • Browse down the results list until you find something interesting. 
  • Look at the Subject terms.  These are standard terms which specify the topic and scope of the item. 
  • More Subject terms found in your record set are listed under Subject on the right-hand side of the results list.

On your HOLLIS record, note the words following the main Subject term and preceded by hyphens (-).  These are called Subdivisions and indicate the various aspects of a Subject

Virtual homelands : Indian immigrants and online cultures in the United States, by Madhavi Mallapragada. Urbana, IL : University of Illinois Press, 2014, 188 pages

  • East Indians -- United States -- Ethnic identity.
  • Online social networks -- Social aspects.
  • East Indians -- Cultural assimilation -- United States.

Next go to Starts with.../Browse at the top of the page.  Adjust the menu to Subject and enter East Indians -- United States.  This displays the subdivisions attached to your Subject term


  • Offer additional terms to search
  • Suggest new aspects of and approaches to a topic
  • Can be applied to other subject terms
    • E.g., Asian Americans – Ethnic identity​

Finding Primary Sources

Meditate on what kinds of documents might be generated by people and organizations associated with your topic.  What kinds of documents (primary sources) do secondary sources refer to?

  • Archives and manuscripts are "materials created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of the enduring value" (Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology) . They are occasionally digitized en masse, but usually must be consulted in their repositories. Selected individual items from archival collections are fairly frequently digitized, and can be found by searching for digital collections online or by discovering the repository holding the collection you are interested in and visiting their website to see if that particular collection has online material. Search instructions.
  • Events may be reported and discussed in contemporaneously published books (Example: World War I).  Travel books may describe conditions in the region visited (Example: Irish Potato Famine). Search instructions.
  • Are events reported in newspapers or broadcast news and discussed in newspaper editorials?  Search instructions.
  • Events may be analyzed in popular, academic, trade or professional periodicals.  Example: How were environmental issues discussed in the business periodicals of the 1970s and 1980s? Search instructions.
  • Have participants written memoirs or autobiographies, or have their diaries been published? Search instructions.
  • Have historians interviewed the participants and produced “oral histories”?  Good for wars (veterans), for the civil rights movement and many other events. Search instructions.
  • Was the government involved?  Might your topic have been the subject of government documents, of reports to Congress, of law and legislation (in which case present in court cases), presidential statements, discussions in the Cabinet?  Search instructions (and the following pages).
  • Images are often a valuable source, and many are available online. Search instructions.

Numerous other kinds of primary source materials exist. You may wish to browse through the list in the Library Research Guide for History which gives instructions for finding each type.

Collections of Primary Source.  Numerous collections of primary sources have been gathered and published for use by students and historians. These may be in the form of: