How to choose an essay topic

Explore your topic

Introducing Summon - which makes it possible to search across many of the library's collections simultaneously. Including books, ebooks, journal titles, games, music, videos, government information, maps, and more.

However,  Summon doesn't search everything that the library owns or subscribes to so you will still need to search other resources to find everything that you need. Summon also doesn't let you do sophisticated searches that you may be used to doing in specific databases or the library catalogue.  

When to use Summon

  • When starting research on a topic
  • If you are not sure which databases to use

For assistance using Summon please contact the Research Help Desk.

Reference Materials: 

Use reference materials to get started on your research. These can be found in the Reference area of the library, main floor behind the Research Help Desk.

Key Databases: 

TIP: America History and Life and Historical Abstracts can be searched together:

    Open either one of these databases
    At the TOP of the search page click on "Choose Databases"
    Tick off America History and Life and Historical Abstracts
    Click OK
    Begin your search

Additional Databases: 

By connecting via Carleton Library, you will be able to seamlessly connect to the fulltext of articles that are part of the library's collection.


Finding primary sources in the library collection

   1. Original documents can be found by consulting the Archives and Research Collections (ARC) website.
   2. Reproductions can be found by checking the library catalogue.

Use specific words to locate primary sourcees in the Library catalogue, such as: correspondence, sources, diaries, letters, personal naratives. KEYWORD search examples:

  • [PERSON’S NAME] and s:correspondence
  • [PERSON’S NAME] and s:diaries
  • [PERSON’S NAME] and s:letters
  • [KEYWORD] and s:sources

Historical Digital Collections - by Topic


Documents range from Columbus' letter to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1494 to President Bill Clinton's inaugural address in 1993. The list is strongest in 18th and 20th century documents, but the whole of U.S. history is covered.

A collection of electronic texts originally written in or about the Americas from 1492 to approximately 1820.

The site has a wealth of American heritage materials.

Includes Archive of Early American Images, Maps, and Political Cartoons

A digital library of primary sources in American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction. The collection is particularly strong in the subject areas of education, psychology, American history, sociology, religion, and science and technology.

This collection includes accurate transcriptions of many important and representative primary texts from nineteenth century American history, with special emphasis on those sources that shed light on sectional conflict and transformations in regional identity.

An online archive of digitized, full-image journal articles offering access to international scholarly literature in the humanities and social sciences disciplines. An excellent source for Primary Source journal articles. Articles date back to 1802.

Art and Culture

Civil Rights

Civil War

Government and Politics

This collection comprises the most detailed primary source from the 19th century to the present for Britain, its colonies and the wider world.  These are working documents of the governments for all areas of social, political, economic and foreign policy.

Provides access to primary resource material relating to US 20th century foreign policy.

Database of texts from the volumes of all the reports, documents, and journals of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. A rich source of primary source material on all aspects of American history.

Medicine and Science

From the National Library of Medicine (U.S.), includes a wide variety of formats. The collection includes portraits, photographs, caricatures, genre scenes, posters, and graphic art illustrating the social and historical aspects of medicine dated from the 15th to 21st century.

Military and War

Some free records available here.


Thousands of rare, historic recordings and special features available through this free site. It includes early jazz, dance music and opera.

Native/Aboriginal History

News Media

Over 7,000 U.S. and Canadian advertisements covering five product categories - Beauty and Hygiene, Radio, Television, Transportation, and World War II propaganda - dated between 1911 and 1955.

The Centre for Research Libraries (CRL) holds an extensive collection of foreign newspapers in microform including those from African nations.  Borrow from CRL through Interlibrary Loans.


One of the most significant and little studied newspapers documenting early anti-slavery and other reform movements.

Digitized collection of thousands of anti-slavery and abolitionist materials.

Over 100 pamphlets and books published between 1772-1889 dealing with the legal status of slavery

Social History

HEARTH is a core electronic collection of books and journals in Home Economics and related disciplines. Titles were published between 1850 and 1950.  Excellent primary sources such as Good Housekeeping and Harper's Bazaar among many others.

The South



The Center for Research Libraries (CRL)
A great institution to check for historical documents, newspapers, journals, archives and other sources. "The Center for Research Libraries (CRL) is a consortium of North American universities, colleges, and independent research libraries. The consortium acquires and preserves newspapers, journals, documents, archives, and other traditional and digital resources for research and teaching and makes them available to member institutions through interlibrary loan and electronic delivery." Carleton University Library is a mermber of CRL.

Government Information

Begin your search for locating U.S. government publications by using the Library catalogue.

  • You can do a subject search using GOV DOC Subject
  • You can do a keyword search and limit by the location GOVERNMENT DOCUMENTS
  • You can do a keyword search using words from the name of the agency and from the title

e.g. a:central and a:intelligence and a:agency and t:factbook

  • You can search for a particular government agency in Author
  • You can search for a particular Title

If you experience difficulty in locating the material that you need, ask for help at the Information Desk in the Maps, Data and Government Information Centre.



A digital library of art images. Includes approximately 500,000 images covering art, architecture and archeology.

The Farber Gravestone Collection is an unusual resource containing over 13,500 images documenting the sculpture on more than 9,000 gravestones, most of which were made prior to 1800, in the Northeastern part of the United States.

Includes Archive of Early American Images, Maps, and Political Cartoons

Provides access to over 100,000 photographs, maps, manuscripts, records, texts, and sound recordings owned by USC and collaborating institutions with particular emphasis on materials related to Los Angeles and the Southern California region.

Audio Interviews


Collection of streaming educational videos that cover a wide spectrum of disciplines. Contains both clips and full-length videos.

For video material at the Carleton Univeristy library, do a KEYWORD search in the library catalogue and limit "Material Type" to FILM/VIDEO. If you cannot find what you need search the following database:

If you wish to borrow a video listed in Watmedia please fill out our Interfilm Video Request form - do not submit requests directly to Watmedia.

General Gateways


Special Topics in American History

African American History

American Revolution

The Civil War

Civil War letters and diary entries include transcriptions and digital images of the manuscripts.  A valuable source of primary documents. Note that the newspaper collection is available to students at the University of Virginia only.

Collection of 23,000 vintage civil war photographs from the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United Stats from the Massachusetts Commandery.

The Cold War

Colonial Period

An online magazine devoted to colonial America. Site can be searched by keyword.

Government and Politics

Biographical dictionary of all present and former members of the United States Congress as well as its predecessor, the Continental Congress. Also included are Delegates from territories and the District of Columbia and Resident Commissioners from the Philippines and Puerto Rico.

Guilded Age

Maps & Altases

This site includes U.S. territorial maps from 1775 to 1920 and links to a number of useful exhibits and collections.


The historical map collection has over 30,000 maps and images online. The collection focuses on rare 18th and 19th century North American and South American maps and other cartographic materials. Historic maps of the World, Europe, Asia, and Africa are also represented.

A collection of digital maps from the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress.

Women's History

The ViVa database provides citations to over 8,000 articles on the subject of women's and gender history published between 1975 and 2004 in historical and women's studies journals.