By Maurice Casey |

How do you track down historical evidence for individuals who operated in multiple countries and in various linguistic contexts throughout their lives? In a previous post, I talked about tracing the living descendants of research subjects. But here, I want to share some practical tips focused on how we can find references to historical subjects in far-flung archives and obscure books. My own project focuses on Irish radicals, many of whom operated in locations as diverse as Dublin, London, Moscow and New York – sometimes all four in the same career. Uncovering evidence for these lives has requires a targeted skillset, my version of which I will outline below.


Searching Archives and Digital Libraries


One of the more exciting parts of my research is when I find a chance reference to an Irish communist in an obscure text that hasn’t been republished since the 1930s. But long gone are the days when such a discovery would require a long slog through every tangentially relevant work. Nowadays, digital libraries and online archive catalogues have made our work considerably easier.


Much of my project would be insurmountable were it not for the fact that I can pinpoint material in archives as far-flung as San Francisco and Sydney through online PDF catalogues of archival holdings. Some of the most useful have been WorldCat, the intuitive world library catalogue, ArchivesHub, a centralised listing of British archives and the Online Archive of California, a truly brilliant guide to West-coast archives that I wish more institutions would emulate.


Digital libraries also allow us to search millions of books at once for targeted search terms. We all know of resources such as Google Books, and no doubt you will be aware of other digitised repositories in your own area of specialisation. Some other digital libraries which I have found immensely useful include and the Internet Archive. Hathi Trust is similar to Google Books in that it consists of millions of digitised library books, but often includes titles missed by Google’s digitizers. Similarly, the Internet Archive is another digitization project focused on works in the public domain. While its reach is more restrained than Google Books or Hathi Trust, it does have the added benefit of allowing you to read most of its works online and in full. Copyright issues prevent other digital libraries from providing the same service.


The Benefits of Misspelling


Now that you have a digital repository loaded up in front of you, it’s time to input some targeted searches.  “Advanced search” features are your friend, but there’s another tactic that has led to more than one personal discovery: intentional typos. Anyone with a tricky name will know the ever-present pain of having it continually misspelled. Of course, this has been the case throughout history and by intentionally misspelling the name of your research subject you may find new sources. Let’s take, for example, the surname of one my central research subjects: O’Callaghan. I have come across this name in the forms “O’Callahan”, “O’Calahan” and even “O’Calagan”, while all referring to the same person. Deliberately misspelling the name of the individual, group or subject you are researching can throw up some interesting results preserved in archives by human error.

Talking the talk


To state the obvious, if your research subject spoke another language, then researching them will be easier if you also speak that language. In another previous post, I gave advice on language learning for historians based upon my own experience of learning Russian for my project. The social, employment and research benefits of language learning hardly need to be restated, but it is worth noting that having another language under your belt will truly certify your credentials as a transnational historian. Research is an area where you can be motivated by tangible progress in your adoption of a foreign tongue. Over the years, the pages of the Soviet newspaper Pravda have become noticeably less cryptic, providing me with a minor endorphin rush whenever I notice an improved ability to decipher the Cyrillic on the page.


Everyone who works on transnational research subjects will uncover differing tactics as to how they trace the figures which interest them, but hopefully these tips might start you on your way to becoming the Carmen Sandiego of Google Books searches.


Maurice J. Casey is a second year DPhil in History at Oxford University. His project examines the international connections of Irish radical women during the interwar period. You can follow him on Twitter: @MauriceJCasey