Finding Historical Data II

This week’s post turns once again to practical matters, and continues our series on “how to find historical data.” The first post in the series covered online dataverses, while today’s post will look at sources of digitized data provided by libraries.

National libraries are increasingly scanning documents in their collections and providing them online for interested readers. I can’t feasibly cover all libraries in this post, so my general recommendation to scholars is to consult the library websites of the country you are interested in studying, to see what digital resources they have. You’d be surprised at how much primary source information has been scanned in recent years!

For those looking for a quick fix, here they are:

I’m going to highlight two national libraries that are easily at the forefront for this type of work — the BnF and the British Library — as well as a new resource, HathiTrust. 

Gallica is the digital library of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF). It’s one of the most prominent, free digital libraries on the internet; more importantly, it has a particularly wide range of historical resources. It has long been a leader in the digitization of archival materials, and its accessible documents number in the millions. Its website is easy to search, and linked with the main BnF catalogue — it’s so easy, I won’t go into it here.

I did an extensive amount of archival research at the BnF — in person, at one of the convenient desks in the Rez-de-jardin. But even being on location, when searching their massive catalogue to request books from the 1770s, I could also see to what extent the source I was seeking was already digitized — it comes cross listed in the catalog. This saved me days photographing (with a tiny camera or an iPhone, no less) a resource that the BnF had already professionally digitized. 

While I have your attention, the most recent project of the BnF is a joint endeavor with the British Library and the Polonsky Foundation, entitled “The France and England Project: Medieval Manuscripts between 700 and 1200.” Sure enough, this is a digitized archive of medieval manuscripts, searchable by country, theme, time, and author. Free to access, amazing to browse, this is a treasure trove of high resolution documents for historical political economy scholars (such as Augustine’s homilies below).

Augstine book
Augustine Homilies

The British Library is also a great resource for digitized archival materials. Just type in a few keywords, and potential data sources are at your fingertips. For example, want to know more about Cathagena, a famous port town in the 18th century? You can consult a harbor plan drawn up in 1743. Both the BnF and the British Library also have subject guides, and the ability to request and pay for your own scanned copies of resources in their collections. 

Carthagena Map 1743

The HathiTrust Digital Library is also an important source for digital materials. As of the writing of this blog post, it had 17 million+ volumes, and it’s worth noting this also links to public records and administrative documents. For example, there are thousands of documents from the US Congress — want to know who was on the Merchant Marine Commission in 1905? HathiTrust has you covered.

Note — some of the HathiTrust materials are limited by copyright restrictions, and so have limited previews; it’s also worth checking with your academic institution to see if they have a full membership to HathiTrust (to increase the number of documents you can consult and download). But overall, an impressive resource.

Scholars across the world have had their archival trips cancelled via the COVID-19 pandemic, and it will be some time before fieldwork trips start up again. But luckily, there are many resources for finding historical data online — including scanned copies of books, newspapers, maps, and all sorts of primary and secondary sources. While not as easy as downloading the cleaned datasets featured in my last post, arguably while the world is stuck indoors this might prove to be a useful investment.


PS-The map that is the featured image from this post is from Gallica, and can be found here. It provides a geographic glimpse at the wine regions of France, by classification, and also includes handy references to railways and canals. From a quick coding of wine by department, to a more complicated ArcGIS mapping, this high resolution map means there is instant data at your fingertips.


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