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History of Africa

This guide has been designed as a starting point for African history research at SFU Library. 

If you need help, please contact Mike McIntosh, Liaison Librarian at 778.782.5043 or or Ask a librarian.

Search tips and strategies

Before starting your research:

  1. think about your topic
  2. break down your topic into concepts or keywords
  3. think of synonyms for each keyword or concept
  4. keep your mind open to new or alternative words that describe your topic.

Identifying search terms (keywords)


To identify which terms you should use to search for books and articles, write down the proposed title of your project (or an imaginary title of an ideal article) and identify the important/meaningful words, e.g.:

  • How did the Mali Empire transition from traditional West African religions to Islam? 

Identify the key concepts and think of any variations, synonyms or related terms, eg: Islam, Islamic, Muslim, conversion, adoption, reform.

Combining terms

The simple terms and and or allow you to combine terms to broaden or narrow your searches.

Narrow: combining with and requires ALL terms to be found in each search result (use this for finding two or more concepts in the same source), e.g. Mali and Islam and transition

Broaden: combining with or requires ANY term to be found in each search result (use this for finding synonyms). Be sure to nest your synonym "or" terms in parentheses to keep your search straight, e.g. Islam and (colonial or imperial or European).

The asterisk: the asterisk * is used for words that may have several endings e.g. nation* will search nation, nations, national, nationals, nationalism, nationalist, etc.

You can also put a phrase search in quotes to find an exact match instead of separate keywords e.g. "Islamic Law".

Background sources

Put your research in context by finding basic information on a topic, definitions, and chronologies. Background sources are a good place to start when you are developing a paper topic.

New encyclopedia of Africa [print or online]

Encyclopedia of precolonial Africa : archaeology, history, languages, cultures, and environments [print]

Encyclopedia of African history [print or online]

Encyclopedia of Africa [print]

African states and rulers : an encyclopedia of native, colonial and independent states and rulers past and present [print]

A political chronology of Africa

Black chronology : from 4000 B.C. to the abolition of the slave trade [print]

Encyclopedia of the African diaspora

Using the library catalogue

After using keyword searching in the Library Catalogue to find a book that meets your needs, use the subject headings for that book to find similar materials. Subject headings are specific terms that have been assigned to each book. Searching by subject heading often yields more accurate results than searching by keyword.

The following subject heading are fairly general, but are a good place to browse for books:

Using subject headings in your search can lead to more accurate results but it's almost always easier to start with keyword searching first. Make sure the book you want is IN LIBRARY before you look for it in the stacks.

Using journal article databases

Search journal article databases to find journal articles on your topic in a variety of journals.

Remember that you may find useful articles in databases from other subjects such as Humanities, Political Science, World Literature, etc. depending on your topic.

Index Islamicus
The international classified bibliography of publications in European languages on all aspects of Islam and the Muslim world. It provides access to research published since 1906 in the field of Islamic Studies.

International Medieval Bibliography
Aiming to providing a comprehensive, current bibliography of articles in journals and miscellany volumes worldwide. 

Empire Online
Empire Online is a collection of over 70,000 images of original manuscripts and printed material, 1492-1969, taken from libraries and archives around the world, including Africa, the Americas, Australasia, Oceania, and South Asia.

Human Relations Area Files: World Cultures
Ethnographic documents on world cultures. Browse by region.

Project Muse
A searchable, online, full-text collection of over 110 humanities and social science journals.

JSTOR and Academic Search Premier are interdisciplinary databases, which could be useful if you want to see how a topic has been treated in other subject areas

Google Scholar allows you to limit your Google searches to (mostly) scholarly material. If accessed through the SFU Library website from off campus, the “Where can I get this” link will appear. Check out the Times Cited feature to lead you to other relevant articles/books.

Recommended journals

African Historical Studies

Continued after 1971 as International Journal of Historical African Studies

History in Africa [print or online]

Journal of African History [print]

Tarikh [print]

Transafrican Journal of History [print]

Find primary sources

Think about what type of information would be most useful for your topic, and then who would collect and store this type of information.
Slavery, Abolition, and Social Justice, 1490-2007
This extraordinary resource on trans-Atlantic slavery and abolition brings together original manuscript and rare printed material from dozens of libraries and archives across the Atlantic world.

Catalogue Entries for items from Empire Online 
A collection of over 70,000 images of original manuscripts and printed material, 1492-1969, taken from libraries and archives around the world.

Black Thought and Culture
More than 100,000 pages of monographs, speeches, essays articles, and interviews written by leaders within the black community from earliest times to 1975.

Unesco World Digital Library: Africa
The World Digital Library makes available on the Internet, free of charge and in multilingual format, significant primary materials from countries and cultures around the world.

African Online Digital Library
An excellent portal to multimedia projects, collections, and other resources about Africa. 

Examples of Primary Sources in the library catalogue:

  • South Africa a century ago : letters written from the Cape of Good Hope (1797-1801) [print]
  • Letters of Henry Hughes Dobinson : late archdeacon of the Niger in the Diocese of Western Equatorial Africa [print]
  • A memoir of Simeon Wilhelm : a native of the Susoo country in West Africa [print]

Consult Primary Sources for the Humanities for further primary sources.