10 Astonishing Research Resources You Didn't Know You Could Access
By the time you’re getting to the last few years of your school career, you’re likely to be called upon to do an increasing amount of research.
You know that you’re not supposed to be using Wikipedia – or at least, that you ought to pretend that you found the information elsewhere. You might be lucky to have a very well stocked school library – or you might not. Either way, while the research you carry out in your last years at school is great practice for the more intensive research you do at university, you’re likely to encounter the hurdle that university students have much, much more access to high-quality research resources than the average school student, which can hobble research possibilities. For instance, your future university is likely to provide you with access to a very wide range of academic journals, while accessing even one paper as a private individual can cost £20 or more.
Having said that, there is still a very wide range of possibilities open to you even if you are still at school. Here are ten great research resources that anyone can access.
1. University libraries
One of the best resources available to university students can quite often also be available to you: the library of your local university. Chances are that you won’t be able to borrow anything, at least not without joining the library (which usually requires the payment of a fee), but most libraries will allow you to visit and browse their standard collections as a normal member of the public. And while you won’t be able to take any of the books away with you, photocopying for research purposes is an exception in the UK’s Copyright, Designs and Patents Act. You can’t photocopy a whole book, but the portion that you can copy is quite generous.
This is a great opportunity because you can start getting to grips early with how to use the vast resources of a university library collection for research, not to mention navigating the Dewey Decimal system and figuring out which of a huge pile of books to prioritise (unlike a school library, which might only have two or three books on the subject you want to study anyway). Just remember to treat the books with respect (even if the students who have gone before you haven’t), to be quiet and respectful of other people working, and to check that the library will be open before you go, as university terms can differ quite a lot from school terms and you might not be able to get in if it’s the holidays. Have a look at Lancaster University library’s guidelines for visitors to get an impression of the kind of access you’ll be allowed.
Are you researching local history? If there’s a local paper where you live, you might be quite surprised by the depth of their archives. Many local newspapers in the UK date back a hundred years or more, and might well have a copy of some or even all of the papers they have published in their history. It’s not a certainty, but a polite request can gain you access to this remarkable archive, so that you can take a look at what was happening in your local area at a particular time, or how the newspaper reported an event you were researching. Notices of births, deaths and marriages in local papers can also be valuable for genealogical research.
One way that you can use this resource is if you’re researching a particular national event, you could take a look at the local paper from the time and see how it affected your local area. It can be very interesting to find out which events were massive enough for editors to try and find a local angle, and which weren’t considered worthy of clearing space on the front page.
The best way to go about this is to make a polite phone call or send a polite email, explaining briefly what you’re specifically interested in looking at, and when you might be free to visit the archive. Be as precise as possible: saying you’re interested in the paper from the 15th June 1933 is much more helpful than saying you’re interested in papers from the early 1930s.
3. … And other local history archives
Your local newspaper is just one place that might have a treasure trove of local history that you never knew was there. Local museums and libraries often also have a remarkable amount of archive material, which they are often quite happy for school students to consult.
Similarly to local newspapers, there are a variety of interesting ways in which you can use this kind of material. While local newspapers may date back a couple of hundred years at most, local history archives can be much, much older. You might be able to find out what happened in your town during the Civil War, say, or how it was affected by plague years – which happened not only in the late 14th century and 1665, but at regular intervals in between.
Getting access to this kind of archive is similarly best done through a polite email or phone call. Having a reference from a teacher may also help.
4. Free online journals
Access to JSTOR, one of the biggest online archives of academic journals, costs $20 a month or more. Most online archives are similarly expensive. Viewing an individual article – as we discussed above – can be pricey too. University students can avoid this because their university will fund their access to a range of the most important journals as an automatic part of their enrolment – but this isn’t an investment that most schools think is worth making, so it can be tough to get the resources you’d like.
However, this isn’t the case for all journals. If there’s a particular article you’re eager to get your hands on, you might be in difficulty (unless you have a helpful friend or older sibling with a university login). But if you’re after more resources generally, particularly ones that are more up-to-date – as it’s usually quicker to publish an article than a book – then you might want to look at the range of open-access journals available online. DOAJ is a vast directory of open-access journals, for instance. Other journal publishers might allow you to look at a certain number of articles for free, run free trials that you can cancel before you incur a cost or make their articles available for free for a short period of time to attract more subscribers.
5. The Internet Wayback Machine
A different sort of research is possible with the remarkable Internet Wayback Machine, available here. As their tagline says, you can search the history of over 485 billion pages on the Internet – and their archive goes back a very long time, at least by the standards of the internet. There’s plenty here to satisfy your curiosity – for instance the BBC’s website from 1997, or Facebook when it first launched – but there is a lot of potential for proper research here as well. If you’re looking into marketing, for instance, it can be fascinating to see how popular brands have evolved in their online presentation. Alternatively, if you’re interested in the history of modern design, the rapid changes in fashion for web design could be well worth studying. And if you’re interested in internet technology, you could look at the history of search engines, from Infoseek to the earliest days of Google.
This can be useful in the context of other studies as well. If you’re studying politics and looking at the history of the Labour Party over the course of the 20th century, much of what you’re looking at might be archives of newspapers, speeches and other such resources. It might then be worth remembering that they also launched a website in 1996, which you could explore for a different perspective to the polished speeches and editorials.
6. Google Scholar and Google Books
Google Scholar and Google Books are excellent, if potentially frustrating research resources. It’s frequently the case that you search for something and there, in the third result down, is what looks like the perfect book or article. You click on it, and you can see just the abstract, or just a couple of pages. Crucially, you can’t see the section you really need. If you’re a university student, this can be a temporary frustration – if the preview allows you to work out that this is a resource you really need access to, you can usually arrange for your university library to get hold of it. For school students, on the other hand, you might just have to manage with what the preview offers you.
These frustrations aside, Google Scholar and Google Books are both great ways of finding out what’s available in terms of research in your field. They’re particularly strong if what you’re looking into is relatively niche or understudied, as Google’s search allows you to filter out anything irrelevant. And if you happen to be looking at something where books written fifty or a hundred years ago are still useful, then you stand a good chance of being able to access a lot of material where the copyright has expired.
A bonus of Google Books is wide-ranging analysis using their Ngram viewer. As an example, try graphing the phrases ‘Great War’ and ‘First World War’, and see how the former virtually disappears once the Second World War begins and the latter starts to appear even before the Second World War has broken out.
7. Project Gutenberg
As far as material where the copyright has expired goes, the outstanding leader in the field is Project Gutenberg. It’s the world’s oldest digital library with a collection of nearly 50,000 books. Most of these are available because their copyright has lapsed, and so can be read in full and downloaded in a wide variety of formats. Most are works of literature.
All Project Gutenberg books are available in plain text, which offers additional interesting possibilities for analysis. If you’re studying a literary text and encounter a critic asserting – say – that the author overuses a particular word or phrase, you can search the book to find out how often it really appears. With a little bit of imagination, you can see how such a tool could be adapted to do all kinds of interesting research. This is much like the kind of thing offered by Google Ngrams – but with the advantage of having full access to your data.
8. The British Library Online Gallery and other museum collections
Lots of museums and libraries make parts of their galleries available online, and the British Library is a great example. 30,000 items from their vast collection are available to view online. You can, for instance, browse through all of the original version of Alice in Wonderland in their book viewer, seeing Lewis Carroll’s handwriting and original illustrations. It’s even available as an app.
Other collections will allow you to search through a particular area of interest. The Chester Beatty Library in Dublin is home to a wide collection of texts, prints, drawings and decorative arts from Western, East Asian and especially Islamic culture. While not much of the collection can be viewed online, they provide a database of hundred of Islamic seals for the benefit of anyone working on Islamic manuscripts. They hope to gather information from the users of the database as well as providing assistance to them. Whatever your research area, it’s worth looking at whether museums, galleries and libraries might have this kind of online resource to help you.
9. Other online archives
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the internet is not what it enables us to do in terms of communication or commerce, but the sheer number of people who are prepared to provide useful information on it to no real personal gain beyond a sense of satisfaction at knowledge shared. Wikipedia is of course a classic example of this, but there is so much more out there that is often hidden in the lower ranks of search engine results.
Wikipedia’s own list of Free Online Resources (which has been invaluable for this article) lists an impressive number of such resources, compiled by hobbyists to further their own enthusiasms. One such example is Psephos, an archive of electoral information spanning the globe and dating back to 1999. Its web design is rudimentary, but the sheer amount of information it contains is astonishing. And a lot of areas that attract keen hobbyists will have similarly impressive archives if you’re able to find them.
10. Freedom of Information requests
We’re not recommending this for every research need, but there is a remarkable resource out there for residents of the UK who want to know information held by public sector organisations such as government departments, local councils, schools, colleges and universities, health trusts, hospitals and doctors’ surgeries, publicly owned companies, publicly funded museums, and the police. In other words, if your taxes pay for something and you want information from them, you have the right to access that information under most circumstances. Age is not a restriction. You might be asked to cover the cost of admin or photocopying, or turned down entirely if the information is sensitive or would cost more than £450 to provide. But beyond that, you have a legal right to information.
Recent Freedom of Information requests including asking Harrow Borough Council how much they spent on software in the past year (£1,614,841 in total), asking the Prime Minister’s office how many profoundly deaf sign language users ministerial departments employ (information not on record), and asking Transport for London the number of times the 133 bus was diverted between the hours of 7am and 9am in the month of May (85 times). What Do They Know records previous Freedom of Information requests and their outcomes. So if there is information you would really like to have access to, held by a public body, you can find full instructions on how to make a Freedom of Information request here.
Do you have any suggestions for great research resources that are accessible to school students? Post them in the comments!