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  • James Wong

Historical Primary Sources At Your Fingertips

Are you a budding history teacher or working on a research that requires historical sources? Do you struggle to find reputable and reliable primary sources? Many historical sources or documents are located in national or institutional archives where access to these items is highly conditional and based on their importance and rarity. The age and condition of the documents also determine whether it requires special handling (e.g. humidity-controlled environment) or would be inaccessible to all but designated archivists.

If what is written sounds like your personal experience, you may be interested in one of the library’s latest databases, Gale Primary Sources. Gale Primary Sources differs from other contemporary databases by offering you direct access to digitised copies of historical documents from the comfort of your home. The database comprises 31 collections, each with a unique area of focus.

(Above: Refine your results by selecting only collections that are relevant for your area of research.)

Changes within the British Empire​

Collections within the database such as the 17th and 18th Century Burney Collection, 17th and 18th Century Nichols Newspaper Collection (sourced from the Bodleian Library) and the 19th Century UK Periodicals contains news pamphlets, news articles, periodicals and other resources. These resources offer an insight into the societal changes during the rise of the British Empire and Britain’s surging colonial ambitions.

Chinese History

The collection China and the Modern World is filled with monographs, manuscripts, letters, and images that dotted the landscape of China’s transformation from an imperial dynasty to a modern republic. News correspondents and missionaries, whose reportage addressed a Western-centric audience, provide a window to the realities faced by Chinese society throughout the turbulent late 1800s to the revolutionary early 1900s.

Archives of Reputable Newspapers

The database also contains access to the archives of many highly regarded newspapers and publishers. This includes the Associated Press, the Daily Mail, the Financial Times, the International Herald Tribune, the Economist, the Sunday Times, the Telegraph and the Times. These archives offer researchers reliable reportage (for its time) on global geopolitical events that occurred throughout the 20th century.

Declassified U.S. Documents

The U.S. Declassified Documents Online collection contains many previously confidential documents from various United States government departments. These resources give insights into the policies of the United States concerning global conflicts and decolonisation movements in the 20th century.

Archive of Punch Magazine

Other notable collections include the Punch Historical Archive, which contains satirical articles and illustrations published by the weekly magazine Punch from 1841 to 1992. In the early decades of its publication, these articles and illustrations were aimed at intellectuals of the British society. While its coverage included various global events, it was most critical of the policies of the British government, particularly in the governance of its far-flung colonies.

Search assist and other analytics tools

The database also contains a treasure trove of resources on a wide range of interdisciplinary topics such as gender, sexuality, law, criminal justice, slavery, abolitionism, colonialism, industrialisation and globalisation. Using the database's “search assist” feature can help to surface related topics.

There is also a “Topic Finder” feature which performs text analysis on the search results and uses treemapping visualisation to highlight words and subject terms that have high occurrence in the retrieved results.

(Above: An example of a treemap which contains related sub-topics. Each coloured segment can be selected to display more associated primary sources.)

Save to your cloud drive

APA, MLA and Chicago style citations can be generated or exported to bibliographic management software such as EndNote or Mendeley. Resources on the database can be downloaded as PDF to either your computer or a cloud-based drive such as Google Drive or Microsoft OneDrive.

We hope you find Gale Primary Sources useful in locating otherwise hard-to find primary sources. If you have questions or need help with searching the database, please email us at


James is a Liaison Librarian for HSSE who has conducted a workshop on searching for primary sources online for History undergraduates. He is currently pursuing a MSc in Information Studies.

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