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Biographical Research Advice

Find Background Information on Your Historical Figure

Background sources or "reference works" are excellent starting points for doing biographical research, and can serve as helpful launch pads to further secondary sources. These types of sources can help identify the basic facts about the historical figure you are writing about, or the historical events that will help you contextualize their life. A good, specialized reference work will help you identify key events, dates, people and organizations. 

Recommended tools for finding background sources for your assignment are:

*Note that these are tertiary sources, which can be useful launchpads to your research, though they are not peer-reviewed or based on original research.

Recognizing Scholarly Secondary Sources

If you are unsure what constitutes a scholarly secondary source for your assignment, the following video may help.

Recognizing Scholarly Secondary Sources in History and the Humanities 7:42 min.

Finding Secondary Sources

Find scholarly books and articles using MRU's LibrarySearch

  • On the library homepage, use the Books, articles & more box.

  • To to find scholarly journal articles, check "peer-reviewed" on the right side of the screen.

  • To find books, filter by "resource type" to "books" on the right side of the screen. Books are a more common source of biographical information than journal articles. 

  • Try the Advanced Search option, and use the drop-down menus to search for important search terms in the Subject or Titles of library items. To find biographical information, search for your historical figure's name in the subject field via the drop-down menu, and add the term biography

Finding and Accessing Books & Articles in MRU's LibrarySearch 5:32 min


Still can't find a scholarly source? Try a History-Specific Database.

If you are overwhelmed with results in LibrarySearch, or having trouble finding relevant enough sources, try searching in a history specific journal article database.

Historical Abstracts: Is a database that includes articles covering the history of the world from 1450 to the present. Subjects include world history, military history, women's history, history of education, and much more. FOR NORTH AMERICAN HISTORY, use America History and Life instead.

Advice for using Historical Abstracts from the University of Guelph 2:00 min.

Find something in Historical Abstracts, but MRU doesn't seem to own it?

Place an interlibrary loan request and we will find a library who can provide it for you. Note that during COVID, some print books and other physical materials may not be available via interlibrary loan, but most journal articles are. 

Finding Primary Sources

The following video explains-

  • what primary sources are
  • how to identify leads for possible primary sources
  • search strategies that are important in successful primary source research
  • tools and tips one for finding Canadian primary sources, including MRU's Library Search, Google, and the Primary Sources for Canadian History section of this guide

Video length: 11 minutes. 
0-4 minutes - what are primary source, how to recognize them, and who collects them
4-11 minutes - strategies and tools for finding primary sources using LibrarySearch and other tools

General Advice For Finding Primary Sources

  • Start your search on the Primary Sources page of this research guide. 
    • If you have never used primary sources before and don't know where to start, try looking in one of the historical newspaper collections listed on the Primary Sources page. Newspapers are a good starting point for primary sources, as they cover most historical events and topics in the modern era. 
  • Look in MRU's LibrarySearch tool on the library homepage:
    • add the term sources to your search query, which helps to narrow a search to primary documents.
      For example: Hitler Sources.
    • Try adding document-specific search terms such as correspondence, diaries, speeches to the name of your historical figure
      For example: Stalin correspondence
  • When searching GOOGLE, include a term that might be used to describe an online primary source collection, such as:
    • "primary sources,"  sources, documents

    • collection, museum, archive or archival, digital

    • Sample Google search: Mussolini "primary documents"

  • Individual primary sources are often hidden inside a database or search tool internal to a website, making a Google search ineffective. First, try finding a website that is likely to hold the content you need, then search more specifically within its collection.
  • Once inside a primary source collection, search using terms common to the historical period you are researching.
            For example: 
    Great War vs. World War I

Ask for help sooner rather than later

Primary source research is often very challenging and can be very, very time consuming. Give yourself lots of time and don't hesitate to ask for advice early on where and how to find a relevant source. See my librarian contact information in the side panel for details.


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Alice Swabey
Drop-in help Mondays 12-2 at the Library Service Desk. Appointments available via Google Meet or in-person. Email help is also available.