Dissertations and Projects – Tips from the Special Collections Team!

Fancy using some primary source items in your dissertation or project?  An original edition print or records from the archives?  Here are some tips to get you started.

Research Tip # 1: Primary → Secondary → Primary

OK so this is slightly against normal advice, which is to start with your secondary sources before you move to your primary sources, but I promise I have a reason!  You don’t have an unlimited amount of time to complete this dissertation … there is some danger in deciding on a very specific topic and trying to find evidence to prove a specific point: you may draw conclusions that are not supported by the sources, or miss more important or interesting information, and perhaps most importantly waste a lot of time looking for something very specific which simply does not exist, or which does exist but which can only be accessed in person in Australia, not that convenient…


  • Then step away, and go to your secondary sources and start reading around your subject: books, journal articles, trusted websites, your lecture notes! This is going to give you the background knowledge you need in order to get the best out of your research.  You will acquire a general knowledge of your topic, you will develop a sense of the areas that have been thoroughly covered and those aspects that need further study, you will begin to formulate the questions and ideas that will provide the focus for your work and you will also pick up the names, places, events and dates which will be essential for providing the access points to the primary source material you consult.  Importantly you will also be able to see what primary sources published authors have used in their own research.
  • Then return to our archival and rare book collections and start to find and choose the primary sources which you will use.

Research Tip # 2: Finding Rare Books

Our rare book collections here at Newcastle University have been entered onto the library catalogue, so that can often be the best way to start your topic search.  Subject search terms work as they would for modern books, and then refining your search using ‘date of publication’ or ‘location’ (“Special Collections”) will get you to those rare and unique, old or limited print run titles. To locate rare books beyond the Newcastle region, the best place to start is the Copac website, where you can search the rare book catalogues of 90 specialist research libraries in the UK.

Research Tip # 3 Finding Archives

Archives are business records, diaries, letters, email threads, photographs, research notes, government publications, annual reports, web pages…  They are not published books and they are not stored and catalogued in the same way that books are.  All those great tricks for finding books, which you have got really good at over the last few years, will not necessarily help you to find archive records.  Don’t panic!  You just need to learn some new tricks.

Subject searches sometimes work, but not always.  Why?  Imagine someone’s diaries. They might have written about your topic once, on the 3rd of April, a long and fascinating account perhaps, but it is unlikely that anyone has subject indexed every single page of every single diary.  So how will you find this precious page?

Well what do you know?  Imagine you are interested in an event held in Newcastle and you are interested in the public response and reaction.

  • You know the date of your event, so that’s the first useful piece of information.
  • You know the location of the event, so that’s the second useful piece of information.
  • You know you are interested in the public reaction, not the official record. So what type of archive will contain this?  Well newspapers might, someone’s diary might, a letter might.  You’re nearly there, but not quite!
  • Who will have created these things? Individuals will have produced letters and diaries, whose names you do not know, so you are probably at the end of this line of enquiry.  You could therefore try to find a letter or diary collection, using ‘diary’ as a search term and making sure that you include your specific date range.  For newspapers you can go a little further.  Do you know the names of newspapers for your time period?  Is there an archive for that newspaper title?  Who holds it?

So that’s the general idea, don’t rely on search terms, think things like:

  • What type of archive am a looking for (letters, a government document, a political pamphlet, company minutes or annual reports, scientific research notes …)?
  • Who, or what type of person or type of company, produced this type of record?
  • What sort of archive or museum or library holds records for that type of person or company?
  • What is my date range?
  • Do I have a geographical limit?

And if you are new to this type of search process, remember that the staff in Special Collections are happy to give advice.

Good luck and here are some collections held here at Newcastle University to get you thinking.

Ideas For Your Dissertation! #1

Ideas For Your Dissertation! #2

Ideas For Your Dissertation! #3

Ideas For Your Dissertation! #4

Ideas For Your Dissertation! #5

Ideas For Your Dissertation! #6

Ideas For Your Dissertation! #7

Ideas For Your Dissertation! #8

Ideas For Your Dissertation #9

Ideas For Your Dissertation! #10

Ideas For Your Dissertation! #11

Ideas For Your Dissertation! #12

Ideas For Your Dissertation! #13

Ideas For Your Dissertation! #14

Ideas For Your Dissertation! #15

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