Answered By: Sarah Morehouse
Last Updated: May 01, 2015     Views: 199

We get a lot of questions related to a research project about human services in previous eras. People have difficulty searching the topic because historically, this area was not called human services. It was only professionalized in recent history, and piece by piece. In the 19th century in the U.S. and Western Europe, care of the sick, the poor, the disabled, and the elderly was left to amateur volunteers. Some were middle and upper class women working within their own families, social circles, and communities. Private charities, often affiliated with religious organizations did a lot of work in this area. So did labor unions. There were also things called "benevolent societies" whose members contributed money and volunteer work, and in exchange, if they were in need, the benevolent society would provide for them. 

So the key to finding information sources on this topic is searching in the right databases, and using the right keywords. 


  • Historical Abstracts (history of the world, minus North America, from 1400 to present)
  • America History and Life (history of North America, from 1400 to present)
  • SocIndex w/ Full-text (sociology and social services topics)
  • PsycArticles (Psychology topics)
  • Medline (medical topics)

A note about time periods: If you are searching in Historical Abstracts or America History and life, use the Advanced Search. They have options to specify what time period you are searching. If you are searching in any other database, you will need to add keywords to your search for time period. Try this combination:

your topic AND ("19th century" OR "nineteenth century" OR 1800s)


So we've already established that human services might not be the best keyword for your topic. You can include it, but you need to add to it. The easiest way to do that is to break down exactly what human service you're talking about. Here are some examples:

  • (orphans OR orphanages) AND  ("19th century" OR "nineteenth century" OR 1800s)
  • (poor OR poverty) AND (charity OR support OR alms OR workhouses) AND  ("19th century" OR "nineteenth century" OR 1800s)
  • ("mentally ill" OR insane) AND sanitariums  AND  ("19th century" OR "nineteenth century" OR 1800s)

etc. etc.

Here is some information about how to keyword search: and

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