Last night I was listening, or rather listening again,  to a MP3 download on my laptop. It was an episode of ‘A point of view’ by historian Lisa Jardine, first broadcast in December 2011.
Thinking about it again this morning, it occurred to me how useful podcasts are. You can download them and then listen to them when and where you like.

On BBC radio 4 alone there are podcasts for several programmes which may be useful for historical research and genealogy.
They include ‘Tracing your roots’, ‘Making history’, ‘Things we forgot to remember’ and ‘History of the world in 100 objects.’

The National Archives website has a section on it called Archives Media Player which includes audio and video. http://media.nationalarchives.gov.uk/
The podcasts have been arranged into subject categories: family, social, military, and political history, law and order, archivists and archives, and international.
Academic institutions are another potential resource for podcasts. The Institute of Historical Research, part of the University of London, has a subsite of its website called History SPOT, which was launched in 2011. The podcast section can be searched according to event type (e.g. conferences, interviews, lectures), geographical area, period, history type (e.g. Military history) and seminars. A recent article showed usage trends for History SPOT and includes the number of podcasts uploaded to the  website, the number of times the podcasts were played, and the number of MP3 downloads.

The history departments at the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford are just another couple of examples of academic institutions offering podcasts.

Have a browse on the websites mentioned above, I’m sure you’ll find something of interest. Do let me know if you do find something useful….


Once you’ve decided on the topic you’d like to research (whether broad in scope or very specific) a useful way to start thinking about the nitty gritty is to consider the type of source you could use:

  1. Tertiary sources – such as encyclopedias, textbooks, and books aimed at the children’s market. These can be particularly useful if you are researching a completely new subject that you know nothing, or very little, about.
  2. Secondary sources – books and journal articles. Published written histories often give an author’s views on a subject, so it is prudent to get several viewpoints and be aware of possible bias. Books and articles will include references and bibliographies, which will provide you with the primary sources which the author has used, and will mention other potential secondary material to look at.
  3. Primary sources – Archival records are unique and usually unpublished. Written during the time you are researching, these can include diaries, wills, letters and newspapers. Though they can be successfully reproduced in books and articles, when studied first hand they can provide an immediacy with a period in history which the secondary and tertiary material can’t.


For 1. and 2. Your local library whether the public library or an academic/ research library will be invaluable.

Sadly, the number of public libraries in the UK is reduced nowadays thanks to local authority budget cuts – so it is important for us to support our local library where we can. There will be an inter-library loan service available to get books which aren’t stocked in you public library (there is usually a cost associated with this)

Many academic libraries aren’t always accessible to those outside the institution i.e. those not studying at the university. Some do provide access for reference and private study (in which case you would be able to use, but not borrow, printed material on the open shelves, and you would probably need to sign a visitors book and agree to abide by the library rules on your first visit). Also, these libraries often have extended opening hours – usually well into the evening during the week during the academic term, which can come in very handy. So it is always worth checking the admission criteria for your local academic library.

For 3. it is the turn of archives and record offices. Again, unfortunately, recent budget cuts have affected record offices and reduced opening hours are common. They are accessible to the public; many in the UK belong to the County Archive Research Network (CARN) scheme, which means that users of the search rooms are required to have a valid CARN readers card (issued free of charge as long as you provide official proof of name and address on you first visit, and valid for a year)

Remember too, primary resources which are not print.

4. Images and artefacts – Art galleries and museums are the places to discover these. Regarding budget cuts, sadly the same applies to the museum sector. Several authors I know have postcard reproductions of paintings, or objects, above their desks as visual reminders of the period in time they are working on. Similarly photographs of a location in which your novel is set can evoke a sense of place whether or not you’ve actually been there.

So, having started to think about the practicalities of your historical research – what’s the most useful practical tip you’re taking from this outline?


When I first discovered this website I wasn’t quite sure what to expect – a history of pop music maybe? So perhaps it is a misleading url  – histpop is the Online Historical Population Reports website.

It is well known that census information is vital for genealogical research, but this site is not intended for tracing individuals in the historical British censuses. The site’s front page has a prominent ‘Note to genealogists and others tracing individuals’ in which this is explained further, plus a genealogical links page – from which databases can be accessed (those marked f are free of charge).

What this site does provide is archive material for understanding how the censuses were taken and how the resulting data was analysed.


Hosted by the UK Data Archive at the University of Essex it is:
“an online resource of almost 200,000 pages of all the published population reports created by the Registrars-General of and its predecessors for England and Wales and for Scotland for the period 1801–1920, including all Census Reports for the period 1801–1937, along with ancillary archival material from The National Archives, and critical essays contextualising much of the material.”

So, in addition to the Census Reports the site includes a wide range of material, including:

  • full texts of the Census Acts – UK legislation making provision for taking the census.
  • examples of types of schedules to be completed. There were different schedules for Wales (English and Welsh language versions were available), the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and for institutions.
  • instructions for those officially involved in the census, such as local officers and the superintendent registrar.
  • examples of Census Enumerator’s Books – these were copies of the census schedules which were sent to London and used to compile various local and national statistics.
  • examples of maps showing Registrar’s Districts at different dates.
  • there are even examples of the labels which were to be attached to the bundled up census returns sent by post!

The Essays section contains over 100 specially written essays which cover a variety of information relating to censuses. In addition to the essays being fully referenced, there are links – where applicable – to any associated content within the website.  For example the essay on ‘Introduction to administrative units of England and Wales’ has associated content linked to: ‘Correspondence relating to the adjustment of administrative boundaries, 1901’ and ‘Examples of maps from Registrar General’s Collection, 1861 to 1921’

Having spent time browsing and searching the site, I came away with a much better understanding about the amount of organisation involved when preparing for a census in the past.

Browse the website, I’m sure you’ll find something of interest. Let me know what you discover in the comments below.


If you are planning to include a character following a particular profession, having a background in that profession can be very useful. Take for example, Bernard Knight the former forensic pathologist who has written two very successful historical mystery series; the Crowner John novels set in medieval Devon and the Dr Pryor forensic mystery books set in the 1950’s. Obviously you can’t have a detailed knowledge about all careers – so the most valuable thing here is knowing someone you can ask: “Who do I know?” Generally speaking people are generous with their time and are quite happy to share their knowledge and expertise.

If you have decided to concentrate on a specific historical period in your writing, go back and browse your personal library, fiction and non-fiction. It is likely that you are drawn to a particular period for a reason – no doubt you will be adding to that core collection. Elizabeth Chadwick has generously shared her reference library for the medieval period on her website – the titles marked in green are those which she’s found particularly useful.

If you are going to set your story in a particular location, then get to know the place well. You may live there, or visit regularly.  Buying a house in Carcasssonne lead to Kate Mosse setting her Labryrinth trilogy in the Languedoc, France. In an interview she admitted that she had thought that the first book would have been set in ancient Egypt. (1)

Tracy Chevalier mentioned her frustration when walking around Lambeth as background for her novel Burning Bright, because there is little left of the streets and buildings that William Blake would have known. The problem was resolved by her relying instead on eighteenth century paintings, drawings, and maps. (2) To gain insight into the period detail of a place, visiting the local museum, or heritage centre can provide a wealth of historical information.

By asking the question “What do I already know about X ?” you may well find that your personal knowledge is greater than you first thought  –  if not, then you know the areas with which to begin your historical research.


The photograph is of some of the standing stones at Avebury in Wiltshire. Avebury is listed as a United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site alongside Stonehenge.

I’m sure that you are familiar with the concept of World Heritage Sites, monuments, buildings and natural areas considered to be of outstanding importance – but are you also aware of another programme run by UNESCO – for documentary heritage?

The Memory of the World programme began in 1992 to preserve and promote documentary heritage worldwide. The international register includes the Mappa Mundi (Hereford) and the Magna Carta from the United Kingdom.

Country level registers also exist around the globe highlighting documents of local significance. The UK register was established in 2009 and there are currently 41 items and collections in the register.

The most recent tranche, all nominated by local councils, museums, libraries, and archives, includes a variety of collections:

  • The Robert Stephenson and Company Archives
  • London County Council Bomb Damage Maps
  • The Thomas Hardy Archive
  • Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journal
  • The Royal Scottish National Institution Archives
  • The Domesday Book
  • The Haig Papers
  • The Churchill Archives
  • Hitchcock’s Silent Films
  • The Aberdeen Burgh Registers
  • The Tyne and Wear Shipyards Collection

I may well look some of these collections separately, and blog about them another time.


Thankfully most library catalogues are now online, which provides the added advantages of being: 

  • available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,  365 days a year
  • accessible from your home computer.

So you can do much of the preparatory work before even setting foot in the library.
The majority of library catalogues online you can search directly, but you may find some which will require you to log in as a guest user.

Each catalogue will be different in look and layout, so it is advisable to familiarise yourself with the one you will be using most frequently. Common features, though, may include the following:

1)      Basic search options: title, author, keyword, and subject

2)      Advanced search filters will refine the search and may include:

  • by location, i.e. by branch library, or in special collections
  • by type of resources, e.g. books, DVDs, journals, ebooks.
  • by date of publication

The type of search you use will depend on the information you already have.

Keyword search is particularly useful because it:

  • usually looks for words anywhere in the catalogue record.
  • is a good substitute for a subject search when you are not familiar with the standard subject headings system used by the library.
  • can also be used instead of a title or author search when you have incomplete title or author information.

Remember to always do the following couple of steps before starting your catalogue search:

1)      Draw up a list of keywords before you start, include synonyms,         alternative spellings and any related topics.

2)      Check the library website for instructions on using the catalogue. They might be listed as Help pages, Guides to using the catalogue, and/or Tips. They are likely to improve your search techniques and save you time.

In the next post I’ll share my catalogue of choice with you.


Although you may find that using your local academic library catalogue is most convenient, I find COPAC http://copac.ac.uk  a very useful alternative starting point (admittedly, it does help that my local academic library is a contributing library…)                                        
Using COPAC you can simultaneously search over 70 major libraries in the UK and Ireland, covering a wide range of subjects. The types of  libraries are:

  • National libraries (including the British Library)
  • University libraries (such as Trinity College Dublin, University of London – Senate House Libraries)
  • Research collections held within academic libraries (such as Cambridge Colleges (Specialist Collections), and Leicester Special Collections)
  • Specialist research libraries (including the National Art Library at the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum, and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew).

The search options on COPAC are:

  • Quick search gives the options to search for author, title, and keyword
  • Main search gives further options to search on, for example by publisher. You can also narrow your search results here, for example by date of publication.
  • Map search

The grey circled ? at the end of each field gives search tips.

There is a complete list of contributing libraries, where further information about each library, including access details and web links can also be found. These can be useful if you want to search the most up to date version of an individual library’s catalogue  –  because although the contributing libraries send update files to COPAC frequently (the last update supplied can be found here) – it might not be as recent as you’d like. So if you wanted to search the most up to date version of the full local catalogue you can link to it directly from the COPAC site.

I recently found these additional links useful for another reason. A previous COPAC search meant that I knew that a copy of a nineteenth century artist’s autobiography was available at the National Art Library at the V&A.  I  intended to visit the National Art Library during August, however a quick look at their website, via COPAC revealed that the library was closed for stocktaking on the day I had planned. So I repeated the search, and luckily, a copy of the book was also held at three other London libraries  –  so without too much difficulty I was able to go to another library to do the research.


  • miniature royal portrait, was bought at a house clearance sale by the National Portrait Gallery.In Norfolk, a small find related to the sport of hawking revealed a royal connection.
    • The announcement of an impending dig at Manchester’s Hulme Barracks came in June – hence the image at the head of this post.
    • The 800th anniversary of Magna Carta will be marked in 2015 by bringing together the four surviving original copies.
    • One of the largest collections of original posters from World War I is to be digitized and made available online.

    Over to you, leave a comment below.
    Which one of these 5 news items do you find most intriguing?


So – you’ve used the library catalogue to discover what the library has relating to the subject you want to research and have made a list of those you want to look at. You’ve found the books and journals on the library shelves and now have a pile of several items to start ploughing through. Though it is probably best not to jump in with detailed reading just yet.

Remember that reading a book or journal article for information is different from reading a novel for leisure.

The following tips may help:

1. SCANNING – this technique is used for example when looking up a name in a telephone directory

  • used when  you roughly know what you are looking for anyway
  • look for specific words or phrases (terms that you probably have already used when doing your initial library catalogue search)
  • scan parts of the book  to see whether it is going to be useful to you, in descending order:

2. SKIMMING – this technique is used for example when you are reading a newspaper

  • you read quickly to get the main points
  • your eyes don’t move along the line of text from left to right as they would when reading the whole page
  • useful to preview the text before reading it in detail
  • can also be used to refresh your understanding after

3. ACTIVE READING – this is reading purposely rather than just browsing.

  • approach the text with questions you want answering in mind
  • always take notes to aid your understanding, and to refer back to at a later date
  • if the book is your own (and you are comfortable doing so) underline and highlight relevant passages
  • if it is a library book (or you don’t want to mark your own copy) note relevant keywords, and write out significant parts of the text
  • summarise what you’ve just read in your own words

Don’t worry too much about your reading speed. It is more important to understand what you have read.

Generally your reading speed is limited by your thinking speed and so if a subject and its terminology is new to you, you will out of necessity read slowly.  It can be useful to have a dictionary to hand to look up unfamiliar words to aid your understanding.

Why not try one of the tips mentioned above?

Remember, like anything else – you can improve your reading skills with practise.


If so, this may give you some food for thought.

On her blog, historical fiction author Tinney Heath recently wrote a post entitled Readers : What are you missing that is just a click away?

This  drew my attention to the potential drawback of reading on a Kindle.


The danger of missing useful information.

In her friend’s case by starting where it plonked her down when she opened the book she missed an all important quote, the dedication, acknowledgements and the table of contents. On checking her own Kindle the author found the same – the book is handed to you, open to Page 1, and anything before the pagination starts, you need to page-back to find. 

Intrigued, I checked the unopened books on my Kindle and although I found that it wasn’t necessarily page 1 where they started, one (non fiction) began at the preface, and another (collection of short stories) at the foreword, it still wasn’t where I wanted to start reading. If I had continued reading from this point I would have missed the cover, title page, title page verso, dedication and other books by the author (s).

In frustration, I turned to The Kindle User’s Guide 3rd edition, supplied with the ereader, to try and find out whether the default opening point could be changed. Unfortunately I didn’t discover a way of doing this, but did find the following in the chapter Reading on Kindle useful:

    3.3 Moving from Place to Place
Using the Menu to get around 

To go to the Menu, press the Menu button and click
If reading a Kindle book the menus will include the option:

Go to… — allows you to move to another location in the item you are reading
The six options include: 
                    table of contents (if available)

Interestingly their definition of the beginning is ‘usually the first chapter, but may be a foreword, the table of contents, or some other location.

Hmm ‘or some other location’ that is not very helpful, back to being frustrated.

My preferred option would usually be to Go to the cover.

This exercise was salutary in that it reminded me how useful reading manuals can be...

To return to the issue of content which could be missed. Notes on sources, glossaries, and maps are all there for a reason, authors wouldn’t include them unless they considered them important. 

In her post Tinney Heath points out that these and other additions are there to offer you useful tools for approaching a book. I have also mentioned in that the structure of a book, is there to help the reader. 

It will be interesting to see the impact of ebook readers on the way we read. For example, the reading techniques of skimming and scanning used for print books, don’t easily transfer to reading an ebook.

So, please don’t passively accept what you are given, don’t let your technology get the better of you. Use the the Menu – Go to..to begin reading your ebook where you want to start.