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  • Writer's pictureKatherine Weikert

Researching History When You aren't at University

Updated: May 7

This semester, I've taught a new module for MA History students called Communicating the Past. Its remit is history communication, in a variety of forms - reporting, media, social media, public writing, and much more. A lot of my students are interested in working in public history, in one form or another, so this module is meant to help them craft their skills at communicating research to a variety of audiences beyond academic ones.


The year of their MA History, is half-way over, so this raised an important question: how do you research when you aren't affilated to a university? How can you access sources when you don't have a .ac.uk/.edu email, login and affiliation?


A gray cat looking startled as hell

WHAT DO YOU MEAN I'M NOT A STUDENT ANYMORE?!??


It ain't a new question, and many of us have been there at one point or another. When I took my long break between MA and PhD (erm, seven years?), I hung on a little bit with a membership in the Society for Medieval Archaeology, and a part-time gig reviewing academic books for bookstore and media outlets (think the little blurbs that you read on Amazon or Powells which aren't cover blurbs.)


Times they have a-changed, and I think for the better. I took to Twitter to ask the question: what do you use when you're not affilated? I decided to compile the answers here, in case anyone needs them (including my MA students - hi, folks!) Lest I start sounding like those recipe blogs that I hate where you get to hear the backstory of your grandmother's blueberry farm and your oldest dog's relationship with dairy products before telling me the damn ingredients, here we go:


Before you graduate:

Try to download what you think you'll need before your time at University ends! See what limits (if any) you have for copyright purposes, and make PDFs your new BFF.


Check out whatever local/national scholarly societies you're interested in, join at a student rate and see if you can subscribe at that rate up front for multiple years to maximize the economies on that one (as well as the access to resources you have through it.)


Anyplace can be a place to research when you've got the stuff to do it with. (These are technical, professional, academic terms.)

And then, try:


Alumni access:

If you've graduated from university with any degree, check to see if they offer alumni access to libraries and library services. You may not have access to services like interlibrary loans, but you may have borrowing, reading, or online database access.


Beyond that, there are a lot of ways of accessing academic and primary materials. When I'm done with this, I'm going to make a separate page that divides them by free/not free, but below, some ways to explore scholarship outside of Universities:


Physical places where you can read things:

First things first: libraries. You may be surprised how much access you have to resources through various libraries, be it local or national. Some places to consider:

  • Lots of UK National Libraries. The British Library, The National Library of Scotland and The National Library of Wales, the National Art Library: Reading cards are free; you need proof of address and proof of identity. The British Library is a copyright library as well, which means they hold almost everything that's published in the uk.

  • The Institute for Historical Research, University of London, gives free membership to its Wohl Library for independent researchers.

  • So does the Warburg Institute Library, University of London, though they ask for a letter of reference. Check with your most recent dissertation supervisor to see if they'd be happy to provide you with one.

  • The Wellcome Library also gives free membership for all researchers. This includes a lot of online database access.

  • Local University libraries. Wherever you are, check in with your local Universities and their libraries. Some are actually public, meaning you don't need a card or a membership to get in - Winchester is one, for example. This is increasingly not the case, though, so it's worth asking if you can get a card or some kind of access as a member of the local community. Some University libraries also have membership options, like University of Manchester, where £75/year or £200 for three years give you onsite and online access. Glasgow University Library has a similar system. At Worcester, the local and university libraries are combined and free to use.

  • Public libraries. If you don't already have a card to your local library...um, why not? I grant you I use mine mostly for ebooks for pleasure reading, but I've also spent plenty of time in my local looking at the publications for local history societies. You can also access records like the British Newspaper Archive or census returns at a lot of public libraries.

  • London Library. Not cheap, but good access. Apparently they will also mail books to you, so you don't need to be in London.


Lincoln Library, where I've done research with their materials. For free!


Archives: Like libraries, a lot of archives are free to access - proof of identity and address is all you need. Check the individual archive you need to see what you need to access the materials, but often it's no more than this. Also remember:


Online archives. There are probably too many to mention, but a lot of archives are digitizing and moving things for online access. Not all of them, because this is expensive - you need equipment, and people to do it. So don't fuss when they're not; it's a long process. Check with the individual archive you want to work with to see if they have anything online. This includes the big, national ones like TNA and the British Library. But here are a few more to know about:

  • The British Newspaper Archive. This one isn't free (though you can often access through local libraries), but a subscription is priced by 12, 3 or 1 month increments if you can manage to give yourself some time delination on what you need to help keep costs down. Some areas are also available through the British Library.

  • British History Online

  • The Internet Archive, Archive.org and Project Gutenberg for out of copyright materials, in general, which often includes antiquarian works and older scholarly editions of primary sources.


Actually, there are a lot of ways to access research materials online.

  • Create an individual JSTOR account for up to 100 articles per month.

  • Academics often retain copyright to their own proofs, and may post them on places like academic.edu, or researchgate.net, free to download.

  • The CORE database is a searchable database for scholarly materials that have been published Open Access (e.g., free online access to all regardless of journal costs.)

  • Don't forget to use Google Scholar too, which is handy for building bibliographies and sometimes also finding research itself, depending on links and institutional open access archives.

  • Are you an active editor in Wikipedia? (If you aren't, why not?) If you are, you can access their own Wikipedia Library.

  • The Institute for Historical Research, University of London, maintains a website detailing places where one can find open access research materials. They've put this up in response to the pandemic in 2020, and have maintained it since.

  • MEMS, University of Kent, has a student-led digital library with open access resources for research in medieval and early modern history. This also came out of the pandemic.


Images. I'm not forgetting you, my art history and archaeology people, or anyone who needs to illustrate something. Try your big museum websites; some of them give blanket permission for academic use of their online catalogue images (though you may need further permissions to publish.) A few to remember:

  • Wikimedia Commons. Quality will vary, though some collections put their own images here for use (like the National Library, Hague, for example.) These are free to use with acknowledgement (check the permission type and act accordingly.)

  • Getty's Open Content Program has over 160,000 images freely available for research.

  • The National Gallery of Art (US) also has open access to their out-of-copyright pieces.

  • The British Museum's images are free to use for personal or research purposes (but not publication.)

  • I definitely haven't checked every single one here, but there's a website of Free Academic Images by region, which is worth looking into.

  • One of my MA students (thank you, Sophie Curtis!) let us know in session tonight that if you do a Google image search and comes up with images that are great, but not credited (LOOKING AT YOU, PINTEREST), you can drag and drop the image into the search bar, and Google will search that image in other pages. What this witchcraft is, we don't know, but the entire room (except Sophie) was incredibly impressed and unhappy that we didn't know this trick. Myself included. This can help you find image sources when they're not easily apparent, and track them down to - hopefully - at least their reference and archive source.


Join a society:

A lot of scholarly societies offer some kind of access to materials, either on a local or larger scale. A few:

  • Hampshire Field Club: £30/£22 per year (£15/£12 without a subscription to the journal) includes access to the Club's own collection at the Hartley Library, University of Southampton.

  • Royal Historical Society: you don't have to be elected a Fellow to join RHS as a Member. Membership gets you access to the RHS Library, online access to their journals and their Camden Series (which are often editions of primary sources.) £40/year.

  • Society of Antiquaries Affliate Membership gets access to library, £60/year.

  • The Viking Society for Northern Research at £25/year gets you - amongst other things - access to University College London's libraries.

  • Membership in The British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies gives you access to the ECCO database of online texts.

  • Members of The Folklore Society can also apply for a UCL library card: £50 individual/£15 student/unwaged to join the society.

  • Individual membership in the American Historical Society (which has both rates on a sliding scale for income as well as multi-year rates) also gets you cheap add-on access to a number of online databases and resources.


Networking

No, seriously. Note that I crowd-sourced some of this on Twitter. Here's some things you can do informally.

  • Craft and curate your social media accounts carefully for scholarship. In Twitter, for example, you can make lists of scholars you follow in different areas, which can give you a quick overview of some new stuff going on. Sometimes, too, an academic might get say 20 free eprints of an article or similar, or an article published with a short-term open access which tends to get announced on social media from the authors themselves.

    • Social media can also help you maintain some kind of scholarly community if you're not currently a part of any University of Institution, which is important for morale too!

  • Ask people. Seriously. We're not made of stone. If someone ever emails me wanting to read something, I am flattered beyond belief and happy to send a copy.

  • Maybe a conference every now and again? I say maybe here because the big ones are often expensive, but if you're tapped into some good local and national societies like the ones above, they will often have day symposia, schools or conferences which are more affordable and give a good chance to tap into current research and network too.

  • Seminar series at different universities are often free, and a good way to hear current research. Many are also hybrid these days, which helps when so many of them feel London-centric. This is only one, but check out the extensive Institute for Historical Research seminar lists (57 different seminar series!) Wherever you are, also ask after any series run through your local History Department or Society: at Winchester, for example, there are the Wessex Seminars, the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Research lectures, and the Modern History Research Centre seminars and events.


This is the kind of amazing inspiration that comes from being around a great research community.


Gray Areas:

These may or may not be legal so I'll leave it to you to decide if you want to access dark libraries online, such as libgen, Anna's Archives, sci-hub and more. These get shut down every now and again, so if you find one down, do some judicious Googling as they will go down, and then come back up with a different url.


I leave this very much up to you as there are good reasons, and bad reasons, to use pirate websites. One is that most publishers aren't actually all that big, or make all that money. Sure, you have your Elsivers and other giant jerks (personal opinion), or your Brills and Brepols which are really expensive. (Books are expensive for reasons like tiny print runs and so forth, for reason of explanation.) But two of my favourite presses, Left Coast Press (as was, RIP, bought by Maney and now consumed by Taylor & Francis) and Boydell & Brewer (still going, and an employee-owned co-op!) are not giant jerks. Plus, you know, sometimes my royalties pay my plumbing bills and I appreciate that income.


So I'd recommend using the traditional routes of access wherever possible, but I also say that knowing that I use the nontraditional ones myself too.


But wait, there's definitely more! This definitely isn't comprehensive, but should hopefully keep you going.


I'm not going to promise to update this as I learn more because, let's face it, the last time I wrote a post here was in 2021, but a handy bookmark on your part should be a start.


Have fun exploring and researching!


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1 Comment


Neil Roberts
Neil Roberts
May 09

Many large cities have excellent subscription libraries which are not as expensive as the London Library.


Nottingham has Bromley House Library.

Manchester has The Portico Library.

Newcastle has the Lit & Phil.


These are excellent resources for any historian.

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