Finding information on the history of Africa

This page has some ideas and sources for finding information on the history of Africa. It may be helpful for students in courses such as HIST 146, HIST 231, and more. 

If you need help, please contact Baharak Yousefi, Librarian for History, International Studies, Liberal Studies, & Political Science at 778.782.5033 or or Ask a librarian.

Ways to look for academic sources

Book covers by ISBNs: 9781107030893

This section outlines some tips and strategies you can use when searching for information in academic sources. To learn more or to get more search ideas, see the Library Catalogue search guide or the general Help pages.

Generating search terms

To come up with terms that you can use to start searching, think about the topic or title of your project and decide on the most important words. For example:

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

Next, take some time to think of any related terms or ideas. Examples here might be conversion or adoption for transition or Muslim in addition to Islam. As you search, try different combinations of these words, and look for other words that may also describe your topic. You may find that the results you get change significantly based on which words you use.

Also keep in mind that the words used to describe something may have changed over time. You can get more ideas for search terms from background sources or articles on your topic.

When searching the Library Catalogue and most databases, you can use the filters on the left side of your search results to narrow your results by resource type, date published, and more. Narrowing your results by date can be especially helpful as one way to find primary sources from a certain year or era.

Using AND, OR, asterisks, and quotation marks with your search terms can also help you focus your search and get different combinations of results.

  • Searching for  Mali AND Islam will connect these different ideas and show results that contain both of them anywhere in the text.
  • Searching for  Islam OR Muslim will connect these related words and show results that contain either of them.
  • Searching for Islam* will search Islam, Islamic, Islamicized, etc.
  • Searching for "West Africa" will only show results where these two words appear together.

You can also use some of these techniques in general web searches. For more examples, see the Library Catalogue search guide to power searching.

Using subject headings

Book covers by ISBNs: 9780230308473

Once you have found a book or article that works for you, you can sometimes use the subject headings for that item to find similar materials. Subject headings are specific phrases that are assigned to items. Adding subject headings to your searches can often give more focused results.

You can find and click on subject headings in the records for many items. You can also search for subject headings using the Advanced Search in the Library Catalogue and in many databases. Here are a few examples of subject heading searches for this area:

Places to look for information

Background sources

Background sources can be helpful if you are trying to get quick facts or basic information about important ideas, people, events, and more. Some examples in this area include:

Book covers by ISBNs: 0761989021

To look for information from other background sources, search for your terms in the Library Catalogue and select 'Reference Entries' from the Resource Type filter on the left side of the results. You can also see the pages on general Background reference sources and Background information for History.

    Article databases

    Databases are collections of information that often deal with a specific topic or type of resource and can include academic articles, newspaper articles, reports, images, and more. Searching in databases can give you more focused sets of results, though you may notice some overlap with the Library Catalogue. Here are some suggested databases for this area:

    • Index Islamicus
      Literature on Islam, the Middle East, Muslim areas of Asia and Africa, and Muslim minorities around the world.

    • International Medieval Bibliography
      Citation information, abstracts, and external links to research publications about Europe, North America, and Africa during 300-1500. 

    • Empire Online
      Manuscripts, print, and visual primary sources on colonial history, politics, culture and society around the world from 1492-1969.

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

    You can also look at the full list of History databases. Depending on your topic, you might also want to check databases for other fields, such as Sociology and Political Science. To find these, go to the main Article databases pages and pick the field you want from the dropdown menu in the first box.

    Primary source databases

    For primary sources in this area, see Primary Sources for the Humanities. You may also be interested in the Primary Sources: Definition and Resources page.