English: Digitized Primary Sources for Literary History and Research
Literary scholars and historians now have access to a wealth of primary source material through digital archives and databases. While these resources can help scholars perform new, exciting research, the sheer amount of material now available presents its own challenges. How do you access it all? How do you know where to look for it? How do you use it and cite it for a research project? What do you do if you find too much? Too little? The links below will help you answer such questions, but they are by no means exhaustive. New historical materials are being digitized on a daily basis, and our ways of accessing and using them are changing too. Our research tools must be adaptable.
Keep in mind that while many collections are digitally available, there are countless documents that are still only available in hard copy. Consider supplementing your online research with trips to local archives, and reach out to librarians who can help you figure out what is and is not available digitally. When working with archival materials—digital and otherwise—patience, experimentation, and planning are all vital.
Anna E. Clark, PhD
Assistant Professor of English
How to Access Digital Primary Source Collections and Databases
I. Collections and databases available through Iona Libraries
These are databases of primary source historical material that the library subscribes to. They include high-quality, reputable material that has been carefully organized and digitized. Featured guides include Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO); Slavery and Anti-Slavery, A Transnational Archive; and America’s Historical Imprints.
II. Collections and materials available for free online
These digitized collections are available to the general public. All are reputable resources for serious scholars of literature and history.
American History and Literature
Making of America
A digital library of primary sources on American social history and literature organized by the University of Michigan library. Includes a wide variety of books and magazines.
Library of Congress Digital Collections
A wide array of beautifully organized digital collections including books, personal paper, photographs, and sound on a range of topics related to American history and literature.
American Printed Ephemera
A collection of posters, advertisements, and other documents from the seventeenth-century to the present, complied and organized by the Library of Congress.
British History and Literature
British Library Virtual Books
Includes beautifully digitized books from the medieval period through the nineteenth century. Highlights include Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, a companion to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll; the notebook of William Blake, the Romantic poetry; and juvenilia by Jane Austen.
British Library Texts in Context
Curated collections of historical materials providing useful contexts for literary works. An excellent starting point for literary research.
British Library Romantics and Victorians
Includes both introductory contexts and primary source material on a wide variety of nineteenth-century British literary texts
General History and Literature
Digital Collections of the New York Public Library
A huge and ever-expanding digitized collection of artifacts held by the New York Public Library. Collection strengths include British and American literature; maps; and nineteenth-century photographs.
The Digital Public Library of America
A site that brings together free digital primary source resources from many American libraries and universities. While the exhibitions featured on the site focus on American history, its resources and texts are international.
Nineteenth-Century Scholarship Online
A compendium of resources for British and American nineteenth-century history. The site features both primary and secondary sources, and materials are searchable by format, discipline, and genre.
A collection of over 49,000 free ebooks (books whose copyrights have expired) available to download in a variety of forms. Holdings in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature and history are particularly strong. Users will find that the site is especially useful if they already know a title or author of interest, but the “Book Categories” link will help to narrow searches by subject area.
Smithsonian Compilation of Library and Archival Exhibitions on the Web
A compilation of online exhibits of archival materials organized by libraries, archives, and historical societies around the world. Includes links to materials from many centuries and countries. The “Search Exhibition List” feature allows users to do general searches with subject terms.
III. Collections that can be accessed at the New York Public Library
Databases of digitized primary sources are expensive, and not every library can subscribe to all that are available. Iona’s proximity to New York City makes it possible for our students and faculty to use many excellent databases through the New York Public Library. Each of these databases can be accessed at all NYPL branch libraries and at the main Stephen A. Schwartzman building in Bryant Park. Materials from these databases can be downloaded and emailed for personal use. Any New York State resident can become a NYPL subscriber by providing prof of address and a form of ID.
Link to all archives and databases at the NYPL:
Featured databases of particular interest for literary research:
19th Century UK Periodicals. Series I & II
An online collection of British magazines, journals and specialty newspapers from the collections of the British Library, the National Library of Scotland, the National Library of South Africa, and others.
British Newspapers (1600-1950)
Searchable full-text adigital archive of historic British national, regional and international newspapers, including two major news media collections from the British Library : 17th and 18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers & 19th Century British Newspapers - in addition to National & Regional papers from British Isles.
Literary Manuscripts is drawn from the nineteenth century holdings of the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.
Nineteenth Century Collections Online (NCCO)
A multi-year global digitization and publishing program focusing on primary source collections of the nineteenth century. The content is sourced from the world's preeminent libraries and archives.
Library of Congress
Library of Congress Digital Collections & Services
Access to print, pictorial and audio-visual collections and other digital services
Finding Primary Sources
Looking for Library of Congress primary sources? Try these quick starting points:
Primary Source Sets – Each set collects primary sources on a specific topic, all as easy-to-use PDFs, with historical background information and teaching ideas.
Primary Sources by State - Selected primary sources for each of the fifty states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories.
Themed Resources – The best Library of Congress resources on the most frequently taught themes.
Browse by Topic - Easy browsing for primary sources across all the digital collections of the Library of Congress.
Web Guides - In-depth guides to resources on a wide variety of topics.
The following reputable sites link to thousands of primary sources.
The Printed Ephemera collection at the Library of Congress is a rich repository of Americana. The collection comprises 28,000 primary-source items dating from the seventeenth century to the present and encompasses key events and eras in American history. there are a significant number of leaflets and some pamphlets, besides the broadsides. The collection includes proclamations, advertisements, blank forms, programs, election tickets, catalogs, clippings, timetables, and menus. They capture the everyday activities of ordinary people who participated in the events of nation-building and experienced the growth of the nation from the American Revolution through the Industrial Revolution up to present day.
How to Use Digital Primary Sources
Information from other libraries and organizations:
American Library Association Guide to Using Primary Sources on the Web
A useful introductory site geared towards history courses, but useful for literary historians
A detailed site that walks users through the steps of archival research, and digital archival research in particular. The links and materials are especially useful for anyone interested in American history, eighteenth-century texts, and diaries and personal papers, but anyone working with archival materials or navigating the start of a research project will find the site helpful.
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