top of page

1. Finding literature

BA Art History

The art historical system

1.1 Library

1.1 Library

Via the website of the University Library you can find practically everything. Via subject guide you will reach the art department and there you will find a reference to the sources relevant for Art History in the Digital Library: references to databases; electronic articles and journals; reference works; digital image collections.

It is beneficial and often necessary to consult other libraries. Most libraries are digitally accessible. You can access overviews of libraries and their catalogues via Picarta or WorldCat.

1.2 Digital catalogues and databases
General libraries
Art Hitorical libraries
Search interfaces
Bibliographies, portals and catalogues
Art Historical databases
Online academic texts
The snowball method
The UL catalogue
1.3 Primary and seconary sourcs
Categorizing sources
Primairy and secondary sources

For research in the digital catalogues and databases, it is important to distinguish between writing up your bibliography and finding a copy of a book or an article. For the first search, you make use of as many databases and catalogues as possible to gain an insight into the available literature on a topic. For the second search, you use catalogues that tell you where you can find a book or journal. In practice, of course, these searches alternate. In addition, many digital catalogues and databases now have SFX. SFX is a program that looks up the availability of a book or an article in physical or digital libraries. Usually, you can click on SFX directly in your search results; a new window will open that shows the availability.

Important general libraries
  • University Libraries, such as the UL of Leiden. Most University Libraries now offer packages of databases: their own catalogue (U-CAT in Leiden) and databases that the university subscribes to (see below 'Important Art Historical Databases'). More and more university libraries upload digital versions of their staff members' publications that are available for download.

  • The national libraries such as: The National Library (KB) of the Netherlands, the Royal Library/Bibliothèque Royale (KBR) of Belgium, the Bibliothèque Nationale of France (BNF), etc. You can find especially good collections in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, for books, engravings and medallions, the British Library and the (American) Library of Congress (


While researching, it is important to choose the appropriate database for your topic. It is recommended that for an Italian topic you look at the Italian national collections, and for a French topic you use the BNF, and so forth.

A number of very good search interfaces search multiple catalogues at the same time, for instance:
  • Portale interculturale combines a number of Italian research libraries.

  • URBS combines the catalogues of the foreign research institutes in Rome and the Vatican.

  • COPAC combines all British libraries.

  • Arthistoricum combines a large group of European and American research libraries.

Important Art Historical libraries:
  • Kunstbibliotheken-Fachverbund Florenz München Rom is the combined catalogue of the German Art Historical institutes in Florence, Munich and Rome, that offer books, chapters in books and journals, and on request and at an additional cost will provide photocopies.

  • The library of the Warburg Institute can be found via the catalogue of the School for Advanced Studies of the UCLondon 

  • Specifically and exceptionally good for architecture is the collection of the Canadian Centre for Architecture (follow the links under 'Collection'). For Dutch architecture, please refer to the site of the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAI) in Rotterdam.

  • The Netherlands Institute for Art History or RKD (Dutch: RKD-Nederlands Instituut voor Kunstgeschiedenis). Specifically Dutch Art History. Extensive library on that topic (publications only available for perusal) as well as important search engines, for instance with bibliographic material on artists, visual material and ICONCLASS that are publicly accessible via the website

  • There are also very specialized, but no less interesting, collections online such as the J.R. Ritman Library. Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica.

When using all the aforementioned catalogues you must take the time to get familiar with the interfaces and with the specific content of the catalogues (is it only books and journals, or also articles, artefacts, or illustrations?). These catalogues are accessible to everyone.


That is not true for the following databases, where you need a (very expensive) subscription to search and download. Most universities, such as Leiden, take out such a subscription for their students and staff.

Important Art Historical databases are:
  • JSTOR is a huge collection of digitized and searchable journal articles.

  • ISI/Web of Science is a bibliographic instrument that allows you to look up articles that cite a certain source, in other words: you can find all articles (included in the database) that cite publications by author X from the year Y. This is a very useful way to find more recent literature about a certain topic.

  • Digizeitschriften gives access to a number of important German Art Historical journals.

  • Project MUSE offers full text access to academic journals in the field of Humanities and Social Sciences.

  • Europeana: discover more than 53 million artworks and other artefacts.

  • Artstor: a database including more than 2 million reproductions of artworks and other artefacts.

More and more academic texts are published online. 
  • You can consult, for instance, the digital review journal Kunstform via Arthistoricum.

  • In addition, many important sources are digitally available, such as the most important classical authors or the Bible (several websites).

  • Finally, there is the digitization project by Google, Google Books that publishes complete books online that are no longer protected by copyright.

  • A number of classic texts about Dutch art are digitized in the DBNL.

Bibliographies, portals and catalogues

Bibliographies are overviews of what has been published in a specific field, including source publications. Reviews can be mentioned, but are often not. There are no separate bibliographies of reviews. Other than that, there are bibliographies of almost anything: there are even bibliographies of bibliographies.


Bibliographies come in many shapes and sizes. The aforementioned 'specific field' can be very broad, for instance everything that has been published in a certain country or language area. These are general bibliographies. But they can also be specialized.


An important distinction can be made between the ongoing and the concluded (also called retrospective) bibliographies. 'Ongoing' means that new editions of the bibliography appear that keep track of the publications in the field the bibliography covers. 'Retrospective' means that the bibliography collects from a fixed point, for instance 'the publications about ... between 1900 and 1950'. Ongoing bibliographies can, of course, become retrospective. Retrospective bibliographies could become ongoing, if someone decides to systematically publish sequels.

Bibliographies can be annotated or not. An annotated bibliography provides commentary on the titles, from simple summaries to complete memoirs. All bibliographies are useful, provided that the work is properly conducted, but a bibliography with a systematic classification and a good deal of comments will often be more helpful than a basic list that just organizes the literature by year of publication.


There are physical and digital bibliographies. Due to searchability, particularly with extensive bibliographies, the digital form is usually best. But keep in mind that a lot of existing work has not yet been digitized and possibly never will. When using the Internet, not only think about libraries and other institutions specialized in bibliographies, but also about websites by private persons that often publish years’ worth of collecting titles, for instance university lecturers that compile a comprehensive bibliography for their students.

Be critical: who put this page online and what is it about? Never trust that a stranger has provided the complete and correct information. In the case of a stranger, you never know whether someone actually knows what he or she is talking about.


Important: stay up to date! If you have exhausted the bibliographies you can still search for the most recent material, often bibliographies have not caught up with the latest publications. For this purpose you can use journals, with their reviews, lists of 'newly published titles', announcements and publisher's ads. In addition, there are the publisher's catalogues: the overviews of the publisher’s production. Even though publishers still use a lot of paper advertising, much can be found on their websites. The same is true for bookstores.

The UL catalogue

The systematic catalogue of the Leiden UL works as a kind of bibliography. The inventory of the library is tagged for topic, so that this catalogue can be used to see what the UL has available on a specific topic. Searching in the systematic catalogue can never be a substitute for a complete bibliographical search, but it can still unexpectedly lead you to literature that had otherwise escaped your attention.

In addition to the catalogue of the University Library, there are other important search engines, such as the Nederlandse Centrale Catalogus (Dutch Central Catalogue), Online Contents and PiCarta. These bibliographies are accessible via the catalogue of the University Library. There are also references to a large number of international catalogues and bibliographies.

WorldCat is another useful portal to use in your search for literature. It is one of the world's largest catalogues. When you know what book title you are looking for, you can use WorldCat to find the closest location of the book. By filling in your location when searching for a book you will get a list of the closest libraries where you can borrow it.​

The snowball method

The next paragraph will show you how to systematically search for relevant material by using bibliographic tools. But there are other ways to find references to source material. Often mentioned is the 'snowball method': you start with a piece of literature, peruse the footnotes and the bibliography and search on from there. That works, but it does have its limitations. For starters, it is not systematic. Much is left to chance, because you make yourself dependent on what someone else knew or thought was interesting enough. It is very possible that the author of the work you consult has missed something, or that something the author thought to be very important, actually is not. Moreover, you are of course only snowballing in one direction: back in time (unless the bibliography mentions works in progress). You will have to find the most recent literature elsewhere.


Still, looking through other people's work is not something you shouldn't do. You will probably find some titles that you, for one reason or another, missed in your own systematic search.


In short: do start with your own systematic search for material, but then use any method you can. Leave no methods unused within the limits of reason and time.

1.2 Digital catalogues and databases

1.4 Special Collections

1.3 Primary and secondary sources

In the first year, you don't usually work with primary sources yet. We will still consider the question of what exactly the term source means. The literature that you read and use in your papers is largely based on the study of sources. Sometimes, you will find extensive source quoting that are the result of collecting data from sources. To value such information, it is necessary to know what a source actually is.

The past itself, that which took place in a particular place at a particular time, is over, it is no longer observable and in that sense unknowable. What historical research does is make a reconstruction of that past based on what information is left – on the basis of sources. The literature includes (more) modern studies on the past based on sources that were handed down from the past.


Note that not all fields of study make a clear distinction between source and literature. Some disciplines define 'source' as every supplier of information including literature.


Categorizing sources 

You can categorize sources by type of material, for instance: written, unwritten. The artwork itself also serves as a source. You can narrow this down: manuscripts, prints, paintings, sculptures, and so on.

You can also categorize by the nature of the source, a typology, for instance: manifestos, letters, diaries, etc. Broader categories include 'documentary' versus 'literary' or 'visual'. All useful categorizations and every field of research uses what comes in handy.

Primary and secondary sources

More problematic is the fundamental way in which sources are divided into primary and secondary. Primary means: first-hand information, direct, close, contemporary. Secondary is: second(or third)-hand, indirect, from far, not contemporary. This raises questions: primary or secondary in relation to what? We must conclude: in relation to the questions asked.

When we, for instance, want to know how the social circumstances of Paris of the early twentieth century affected Picasso's 'Blue Period,' then Paris' public records can be a primary source, but novels by Picasso's contemporaries are not. On the other hand, if we ask questions about the representation of social issues from that time, then novels are indeed a primary source.

Whether something is a primary or a secondary source, even whether a text should be defined as a source or as literature, depends on the questions asked. When we write the history of modern science, then the work of scientists is also a source. A particular question results in the need to distinguish a particular category of source material and then use these materials. That category is primary for the research in question. The sources stay the same, but whether they are called primary or secondary and used as such in a particular context depends on the content of the research. A primary historical source is thus a representation of the past and indeed one that establishes a connection as direct as possible between the researcher and his or her question and the past itself. For this, a source does not have to have certain age or status. The newspaper or yesterday's exhibition can be a source, just as an art manifesto from eighty years back. Neither does a source have to be of a certain type: an archival document can be a source; a press photo, a painting or a diary can be too.


Survey works of Art History may not be included as sources or literature for a paper. These are too general. Always look for specific literature or resources that fit with the topic of your assignment.

1.4 Special Collections


Via Digital Special Collections you can find objects from the collections of Leiden University.

bottom of page