The main tools for historical research are primary sources (or ‘documents’). Most printed books and manuscripts from the seventeenth century are securely held in research libraries such as the British Library and the Bodleian Library. But primary sources are increasingly available online, and this means there’s been no better time to be studying this period.
Printed books are the most easily accessible primary sources online. Google Books has digital scans – fully searchable – of thousands of seventeenth-century books. Another free online resource is the Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership (or EEBO-TCP for short). EEBO-TCP contains highly accurate and searchable texts from the EEBO database. Specialist websites such as the English Broadside Ballad Archives and Bodleian Ballads Online supply free facsimiles and transcriptions of many thousands of early modern songs and poems.
Manuscript sources are more tricky to access online, and can also be challenging to read on account of the quirky early-modern handwriting. The National Archives website has made available some useful manuscripts from specific events such as the Jacobite rebellions, the Great Plague, and the role of women in the civil wars. (All the National Archives early modern resources can be found here.) For students interested in manuscript literature, or what early modern manuscripts look like, useful websites include Scriptorium and The Casebooks Project.
Plenty of online resources exist to help you explore the art and material culture of the Stuart era. The British Museum research website is the biggest and most useful resource for exploring early Stuart material culture. Other institutions such as the Victoria and Albert Museum likewise have searchable collections to research online. A very useful central resource for seventeenth-century prints is British Printed Images to 1700. The National Portrait Gallery has hundreds of portraits of all the most significant figures of Stuart Britain. It also has a useful guide on how to interpret the iconography and meanings of early modern portraiture.
Major historical events of the seventeenth century were not reserved to the royal courts or parliament. History happened locally and many of the best resources for studying local history can be found across the country. The National Archives has an immensely helpful resource called Find an Archive, which provides information about all the public archives across Great Britain and Northern Ireland. From the Find an Archive website you can usually find details to contact the local archivist or a link to the searchable archive catalogue. Many local archives can also be searched from the central National Archives Discovery catalogue.
Secondary sources can sometimes be difficult to access for free online because they remain in copyright. This is particularly true of articles in the top scholarly journals, which are usually only available to subscribers. However, journal articles are increasingly becoming ‘open access’, which means freely accessible to the public. For instance, the respected journal The Seventeenth Century recently made thirty of its most significant articles from the last thirty years freely accessible here. It is also possible to sign up to the journal repository JSTOR as an individual, which enables you to read up to three articles every fortnight for free.
The most important secondary sources are books by historians (known in academia as monographs). Few books are free; however, it is usually possible to read extracts on Google Books.
Local libraries are a wonderful resource for independent study. If your local library does not have the book you need, you might be able to request it through an inter-library-loan. Alternatively, if you live nearby to a university you may be able to use their library for free. Once you are inside the university library, it is also usually possible to access articles in scholarly journals for free, as most universities are subscribers to all the top journals.