How to do historical research online

Critical thinking and good research skills are fundamental curatorial skills.

Our CRC Guide on how to do research online will be useful to anyone wanting to methodically pursue a research topic but has limited or no access to physical libraries and collections. However, the research methodology applies whether you are researching digitally or directly with documents, books and media, or both. Whether you are a curator, librarian, archivist, scientist, genealogist, do family history, house history, oral history, local history, exhibition research, or want to decolonise, these resources will help you make a start. They are compiled primarily from a UK-based perspective but the resources each have international relevance. The research style is historical enquiry, rather than contemporary social research, say, on attitudes and opinions.

What you will need to get started:

  • Laptop or computer with an up to date web browser such as Safari (Macs), Chrome or Firefox
  • Experience of web searches
  • Experience of taking screenshots
  • Experience of bookmarking or converting web pages into PDFs
  • Somewhere to keep notes
  • Somewhere to keep files, including screenshots and images.

Part 1: Research methodology

Curatorial Research Centre’s research method for online historical enquiry.

1. Starting points

These are the who, what, when, where, how of your research topic and are important for framing your research. A simple research question starting with these words can do wonders for keeping you on track, e.g. What was William Colenso’s role in taking Cornish and British plant specimens to New Zealand, and vice versa?

My starting points are about looking for connections between people and places.

2. Make a list of keywords

Use paper and pen, a note app on your phone or computer, whatever you are comfortable with. Make a list of names of people, places – including different spellings or old names or names in relevant languages, dates – especially the life dates of a person to make sure you have found the right person, things and types of object or material and events. These will form the basis of your search terms. Keep refining as you go along:

  • William Colenso, printer, publisher, missionary, plant collector, botany, Penzance
  • 1811-1899
  • Penzance Dole
  • Waitangi Treaty, NZ; Māori Bible
  • PZ Natural History and Antiquarian Society
  • Plants
  • Morrab Gardens, NZ specimens e.g. Pohutukawa

Ask yourself, “Where did they get that information from?”

3. Follow the trail

By now you will have a few references and links from your starting points. Academic-style articles usually have footnotes or endnotes that you can follow, ask yourself, “Where did they get that information from?” What articles, books and websites are included in the bibliography? Follow links from websites (always keep a record, see below), look for citations especially from directly and indirectly quoted material, have a look at book indexes too for new keywords you can use. Your classic place to follow a trail of references, links and citations is Wikipedia. Does the article use decent sources of accurate information? Don’t go too far down this trail before stopping to collect and document.

4. Filter and refine

By now you will have probably started with a simple web search and been able to corroborate your initial starting points. Have you got the right person? Have you checked the dates? Are you in the right place? This is especially important when conducting comparative research across countries and regions. At the filter stage, begin refining your keywords, make a new list to pursue next, or use a ‘parking space’ in your note of keywords and ideas to research at a later date.

5. Save and collect

Researching online can get messy with many open tabs in your web browser, perhaps a desktop full of screenshots. Time to save and organise the most relevant information you’d like to return to when it comes to compiling your research into a blog post, article, application or whatever. Web pages, including pages of search results can be bookmarked via your browser. In your bookmark manager, usually found in the menu of your web browser (Safari, Chrome, Firefox etc) you will have the ability to create a new folder. Create a new folder and name is something related to your topic, then save each page to that bookmark folder. For images you want to download, keep a note of their source (web address or URL) and if possible the photographer or creator of the image for later crediting and captioning.

Screenshots can be treated like you would cuttings in a scrapbook, rename the files to something meaningful, save them in a folder on your computer, Dropbox, OneDrive, GoogleDrive or wherever is convenient to you. You can also treat the screenshots as images and import them into your Photos or Camera Roll app if you have them. I then create an album related to my research so I can easily browse them. Some web browsers like Safari enable you to export an entire web page as a PDF which you can later save as a document. In all and any of these cases keep a record of the web address or URL and the date you accessed them.

6. Document and annotate

The best place to annotate the sources you have downloaded, clipped and shot is on those files themselves. Many online digital books and articles will already contain their citations on the documents themselves so in this case just keep a note of the date you have accessed them for your own references. Where relevant, include specific page numbers e.g. in PDF articles or books. For short runs of text you wish to excerpt or for transcriptions of, for example, newspaper articles, keep a note of the date of the article or excerpt, author and its publication, like newspaper name, book name. Copy and pasting works well from online PDFs that have undergone OCR but this is easiest from text on web pages. Warning: It is very easy to forget where you got a particular excerpt from so do not neglect recording the source before you move on.

Part 2: Search and discovery

7. Effective web searching

A web search will most likely be your where you will start your online historical research. Using your list of keywords (stage 2 above) you will most likely use as your search engine. Google searches are governed by all sorts of algorithms that can privilege certain web pages over others in the search results, and not necessarily based on those most relevant to your research. Be patient with your search results and look beyond the first three or four results. Alternative search engines are who operate a privacy-first policy that won’t track you across the websites you end up visiting. Others are and There are other alternative search engines you could try too. Try a combination of 2-4 keywords. If you are searching for a person’s name try adding a keyword related to place, e.g. William Colenso Penzance or a keyword related to a theme or topic, e.g. William Colenso plants.

Wikipedia is an encyclopaedia, not a place where original research is published, but rather synthesises existing research published elsewhere.

8. Identify search results

Individual search results may take you directly to other repositories of information such as a Wikipedia article or a published article in an online library such as JSTOR or articles from specialist organisations and local history groups. To keep track, open up each search result in a new tab of your web browser and then make notes, bookmark, screenshot, export as you need. You are looking for well-referenced material, unless you are collecting opinions and ideas from specific people and organisations. Identifying digitised books, journal articles, blog posts written by knowledgeable people (which will or should contain references of some sort) will all help you on your way to following the trail. Remember: Wikipedia articles can be a great springboard. Wikipedia is an encyclopaedia, not a place where original research is published, but rather synthesises existing research published elsewhere, so bear this in mind when citing Wikipedia articles in your published research. Follow references and citations and see if you can get to the original source of that fact.

9. Navigating tl;dr

If you struggle to read an entire web page or online article because of its length and you are just curious about finding mention of your keywords, try the ‘search and find’ function on your computer. On a Mac this will be cmd-F and on a Windows PC this will be ctrl-F. Where a text has not been digitised with underlying OCR, try and locate the index. Historical journals will usually index contents of a run of journals covering several years.

Digitised by Google, found via the Internet Archive, a book about Penzance published in 1845.

10. Digital libraries, books and catalogues

The single best digital library on the web is the Internet Archive which also incorporates the Wayback Machine, an archive of defunct websites going back to the 1990s. You can access millions of digitised books, journals, magazines, videos, sound files, radio transcripts, documents and collections. It is definitely worth using the Internet Archive as your next base after general web searches, and if you see an search result, follow the trail. It is particularly useful for locating antiquarian journals and books now long out of print. A similar digital library of books in particular is the Hathi Trust. Google search results will also include digitised books relevant to your search. Although Google no longer engages in digitising books, there are millions that are still available and you could head straight to Google Books search to find out.

Many national libraries now have comprehensive catalogues of their holdings, and some of them digitised and directly accessible. To find UK-based holdings head to the catalogues of the British Library, National Library of Scotland and National Library of Wales. The Linen Hall Library maintains a catalogue of book holdings related to Northern Ireland. National Library of New Zealand, Library of Congress and National Library of Australia all provide free access to extensive holdings of digitised books, images and documents. The national libraries of other nations are also worth finding, depending on the topic you are researching. Remember, not everything to do with a region or area in the UK is necessarily held in UK collections, and vice versa. For a quick search of holdings across the UK’s academic and special collections libraries (many run by universities) head to Jisc’s Library Hub Discover, formerly known as Copac.

Note: Access to specific institutional and publishers’ repositories of any kind usually require a college, school or university login for free access, however you can still search the holdings and there are paid options. You should also check your local county or regional public library service to see what digital reference resources you can access via those.

Excerpt from the British Newspaper Archive, later marked up to help remember references. The filename contains the name of the newspaper, date and page number where shown (credit: British Newspaper Archive).

11. Archives, manuscript and newspapers

National library catalogues will usually also search across archive and documentary (unpublished) material too, however most regionally-related archives and manuscripts will be found in county-specific or special collections-specific repositories. For example in Cornwall, the combined Cornish studies library and archives are held at Kresen Kernow. Public archives and records are usually under the auspices of the local authority so it’s worth starting there to see what catalogues and digitised material are available. For UK-based official records you will need to consult The National Archives where you will also be able to search across much of England’s other archives through Discovery (but the listings are not comprehensive so always follow up with a direct search at the relevant record office or archive service).

A huge body of British newspapers have been digitised and made searchable by content by the British Newspaper Archive. The archive is a phenomenal resource for primary source material on all manner of topics covered by regional and national newspapers. You can search for free but to download sheets you need a subscription. It is comparatively reasonable for around £80 per year. The Times (UK) maintains its own archive for which you need a separate subscription to the paper.

12. People, family and address research

Family history and genealogical research resources have exploded online over the last 20 years, with everything from birth, marriage death data, embarkation data (useful for any migration research), armed forces, participation in wars and campaigns. As a consequence of resources run commercially such as and effective web searches will identify specific records from the website, such as a record of a baptism or marriage. However for research prior to 1911 (shortly it will be 1921) try searching the UK census which can help identify people at specific addresses, and also occupations and relationships. The National Archives links to publicly accessible census data from England, Wales, Channel Islands and Isle of Man from 1841. National Records of Scotland provide links to historical Scottish census data freely available also from 1841.

Researching an artist, painting or similar? There are many art and artist’s databases on the web based on schools, styles, countries, institutions and regions (credit: Curatorial Research Centre).

13. Picture research

Art or object-led research may require you to get interested in picture, sound and video research alongside your documentary word-based research. All major search engines now include image and video results, either naturally in your search results, or by selecting a tab that homes in on images, e.g. Google image search. Repositories for historical and historically-relevant imagery include which includes Flickr Commons, a searchable catalogue of photographs and imagery from public archives that are no longer in copyright and are freely given by custodian institutions such as the British Library or Library of Congress. Wikimedia Commons is another similar source. Search engines like Google include tools to help you filter out images according to their usage rights, which can be very helpful if you are looking for free to use imagery that just requires attribution. Individual institutional repositories for imagery, including paintings and photographs are worth heading to directly, such as ArtUK for art in UK public collections, National Portrait Gallery for portraits and images of people.

Look for specialist art and artists databases online, such as those based on schools, styles or regions, for example the Cornwall Artists Index. Some apps and image search engines enable searching by using an image, and like artefact research below, this could be, and will be, a useful tool when trying to find comparisons or confirm an identification.

14. Finding film, sound and music

For film and video footage head to YouTube or Vimeo. Libraries of film and video use these platforms to publicise their collections and provide clips or even whole videos, such as Pathé, BFI, defiant TV stations such as Thames TV. As film is generally more tightly controlled by owners of those items than images, it’s a good idea to get hold of them before contemplating any public use, but for your own research or teaching, please continue. For sound libraries, Soundcloud may have something for you, although it tends to be used by individuals sharing their own recordings of music and podcasts. However some oral history projects have used Soundcloud to provide access to recordings so worth a browse. The British Library Sounds Collection is an incredible resource to find historical recordings of language and accents, performances, music, nature and oral histories. Duke University maintains a list of repositories for research databases aimed at music research. Search for online film and sound collections in the region you are interested in too, e.g. contains over 36,000 photographs, sound clips and films related to Cornwall.

15. Historical maps, buildings and sites

Historical maps in the UK are dominated by the Ordnance Survey who tightly control access to modern-day and historical, now out of copyright, maps. However thanks to the National Library of Scotland, most of the 19th and early 20th century UK’s OS maps at 6″ and 25″ scales are available to search, as well as many others by other map-makers of the 17th to 20th centuries. Old Maps is also worth conducting a geographic search, particularly if you need to identify a specific building, field, river or street as its interface is more user-friendly than NLS’s. However you can’t download for free. If you are interesting in historic features such as listed buildings, scheduled monuments and sites in the landscape, try a search on Heritage Gateway (England), Archwilio (Wales) and Historic Environment Scotland and Northern Ireland Buildings Database.

16. Regional and political research

If your research has a large geographical focus and is based in the UK, try British History Online as a place to find historical editions of books such as some Victoria County Histories, maps, guides, calendars and other sources going back to the Middle Ages. These are normally publications which have or have had some connection with Government or Parliament and can provide a useful way into topics around local governance, colonialism, monarchy, constitution and specific political events. This digital library is based at the Institute of Historical Research, London, UK. Hansard is the official source of Parliamentary debates in the UK going back 200 years and cover debates in both the House of Commons and House of Lords. Historic Hansard 1803-2005 lets you search and browse chronologically. The History of Parliament Online might also help you research constituency history and MPs going back to the 14th century.

A more left-field idea that we have found useful in historical artefact and ephemera research is eBay.

17. Museum collections and artefacts

Museum objects, specimens and collections may not be the first thing that springs to mind when undertaking historical research, but if one of your starting points is a type of object or material, online museum collections can help identify and better understand the people and industries behind them. For art, we have already met ArtUK in no. 14 above. Large museums and cultural organisations such as the British Museum and the National Trust provide extensive object records via their websites. Other large and national museums have done the same so head to their websites to see what collections information they readily provide access to. Some have also contributed to Flickr Commons and this link goes to the list of institutions who have taken part. A superb source of knowledge for archaeological artefacts is, a database of items reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme in the UK.

An aggregator of online museum collections across Europe is Europeana. The UK used to have its own version called Culture Grid, maintained by Collections Trust. However it has been neglected for about a decade, and Collections Trust has recently announced its retirement, which is a shame as it is the only means we have of searching across several hundred UK-based public collections and was largely built from the efforts of mass digitisation projects in the early 2000s. Well worth using it now before it goes, although be aware of its limitations in terms of search.

Researching silver hallmarks to identify makers, place of creation and year (credit: Curatorial Research Centre).

A more left-field idea that we have found useful in historical artefact and ephemera research is eBay. Ebay has been around since the early days of the web and there is a veritable repository of past sales and listings. Use an eBay search and filter with ‘completed listings’. Also look out in your web search results for historical auction sales information via auction house websites. Many of these are restricted to subscriptions but some information about sales of art and artefacts is usually available, sometimes with useful photography.

In addition to databases of online sales or collections and aggregators of collections, there is significant reference information online that can help with the identification of materials, techniques and dating, such as for UK hallmarks on silver and gold. Makers marks for studio pottery might be found on the British & Irish Studio Pottery Marks website. For natural specimens such as geological minerals, try For any specialist type of material or object include the word ‘database’ to see if anything comes up relevant to your topic.