12 Digital Research Suggestions for Dissertations on the History of Modern Britain & the British Empire

Illustrated London News

David Thackeray, Marc Palen and Richard Toye
University of Exeter

As 3rd-year students scramble to finish their dissertations and as 2nd-year students begin formulating topics for their own, it’s worth noting the dramatic expansion in the availability of sources for the study of modern British and British imperial history in recent years.

Many of these sources are free to use. However, it is often hard to keep track of what materials are now available. What follows is a short guide (which is by no means comprehensive) but gives an introduction to some of the most important sources and may be of particular use to students planning dissertations, as well as other researchers. Please feel free to add your own suggestions in the ‘comments’ section.

  1. Mass Observation was a social investigation organisation set up in the 1930s that produced a range of social surveys about British life until its disbandment in the late 1940s. This website provides online access to a range of data held in the Mass Observation archive at the University of Sussex and is invaluable for social historians. Dr. Lucy Robinson has also produced the excellent Observing the 80s website, which holds material compiled following the modern revival of Mass Observation, as well as oral history recordings from the British Library.

  1. Digital newspapers – A range of British newspapers are available to access online, although many require a personal or institutional subscription. Collections are most comprehensive for the nineteenth century- the British Library Nineteenth Century Newspaper archive (subscription required) is an excellent source, and is but one of many newspaper databases included in the Gale NewsVault (others include the Economist Historical Archive, the Financial Times Historical Archive, and the London Times Digital Archive). However, if you are interested in imperial history many countries’ archives provide free access to a range of historical newspapers- the best examples being Trove (Australia) and PapersPast (New Zealand). The latter can be supplemented by the in-progress New Zealand Electronic Text Collection, curated by Victoria University. For more about using digital newspapers to study imperial history see here.
  1. BBC Archive – the BBC’s online archive is regularly updated and provides some excellent introductory material on issues such as Thatcher and the role of women in British politics; gay rights; Second Wave feminism; British elections; and apartheid. The anti-apartheid movement also has an excellent archive of digitised material.
  1. Imperial War Museum – the IWM holds a range of digital collections that are being regularly updated during the centenary commemorations of the First World War.
  1. Colonial Film archive – this website provides free access to a range of films from government documentaries to home movies produced within the British Empire/Commonwealth. The ‘colonial’ definition of the project means it is by no means fully comprehensive (so South Africa does not feature after it gained Dominion status in 1910). But the website still manages to provide access to a wealth of audio-visual material. For more discussion of issues surrounding the imperial film archive read here.
  1. British Political and Social history film archives – BFi Inview and Screenonline provide invaluable access to a range of audiovisual sources for the social and political history of modern Britain; British Pathe offers access to the history of newsreels; and the University of Sheffield’s Party election broadcasts website features various PEBs produced between 1945 and 1964. And the Box of Broadcasts (bob) remains an underutilised visual resource.
  1. Gender history archives – particularly valuable are the Women’s Library records at the LSE (some of which have been digitised), and the British Library Sisterhood and After project, which provides an oral history of the women’s movement.
  1. Thatcher Foundation and Churchill Archive – the Thatcher Foundation is a free and very broad ranging collection of over 10,000 documents connected to Thatcher’s rise and her time in power. The Churchill Archive is similarly wide-ranging but needs to be accessed via a personal or institutional subscription.
  1. Government records and national library websites – some substantial archives focused on government and foreign relations have been digitised in recent years. In particular, see the British Cabinet Papers, 1915-1986; Foreign Relations of the United States; Canadian government documents online; the MacKenzie King diaries; Trove provides a gateway to a range of digitised sources connected to Australian history; The Journal of the House of Representatives (New Zealand); Tapuhi (which includes digital content from the National Library of New Zealand).
  1. Stop Thief!British university online collections – LSE digital collections – provides access to a range of resources, these include records relating to the Fabian Society, and student activism, as well as posters connected to early twentieth century politics; the Bodleian Library provides access to the Conservative Party poster collection online; Solo Oxford (Online Resources search) provides access to non-copyright books which have been digitised from the Bodleian Library’s collections; Openlibrary.org provides a similar service for other university libraries; the Cartoon Archive maintained by the University of Kent is also worth consulting.
  1. Your own special collections – if you are based at a UK institution, do not discount the value of your own university’s physical special collections for undertaking dissertation research. Online digital archive collections often feature only 1-10% of a physical archive’s holdings. This may be due to copyright reasons, the large costs of digitising material, or the physical conditions of archives. The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum at the University of Exeter, for example, has 70,000 physical items (for more about the resources available at the museum for historical research see this Youtube video).
  1. Blogs, websites and Twitter- can provide an excellent insight into what historians are finding in the archives, their latest research, and the opportunities that are available for postgraduate funding. Apart from this blog, we also recommend the Modern British Studies, Birmingham blog and twitter; the Imperial and Global History Network based at the University of Exeter, and History of Parliament. In addition, Hugh Pemberton’s guide is worth reading for more information on research resources.

8 thoughts on “12 Digital Research Suggestions for Dissertations on the History of Modern Britain & the British Empire

    1. Great list! I can add a few Canadian collections. A non-profit called Canadiana has established a number of online repositories for primary sources, in partnership with major libraries and institutions.

      Héritage (http://heritage.canadiana.ca/?usrlang=en) holds digitized documents from Library and Archives Canada. Registered users of LAC can request to have microfilm reels digitized free of charge and they will be uploaded to Héritage (eventually).

      Historical Debates of the Parliament of Canada (http://parl.canadiana.ca/?usrlang=en) is exactly what it sounds like.

      The DFATD Digital Library (http://dfait-aeci.canadiana.ca/?usrlang=en) contains documents digitized by the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development

      The Discovery Portal (http://search.canadiana.ca/) searches a number of participating institutions’ digitized collections and provides a gateway into a large collection of digitized newspapers.

      Early Canadiana Online (http://eco.canadiana.ca/?usrlang=en) holds a large collection of early Canadian periodicals, mostly from before 1900. ECO requires a subscription but the paywall can be easily avoided by consulting the site’s API.

      Beyond specialized repositories, The Internet Archive (https://archive.org/) is always a great place to find printed primary sources.

  1. Very helpful listing. Those who live in Wales (Welsh post code necessary because funded by Welsh Government) can use the NLW digitised newspaper collections (currently English and Welsh titles up to 1919, but with a slight gap c. 1908-14) as well as Welsh Periodicals online (patchy at present but proceeding; all periodicals pub in C20th and before if they started in C19th).

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