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Primary Sources

How to locate primary sources, sometimes called primary documents.

What Are Primary Sources?

Primary sources provide firsthand evidence of historical events.  These include letters, diaries, photographs, speeches, and other documents. Many of these are unpublished, one-of-a-kind items. 

A growing number of Primary Sources are available on the web, thanks to digitization projects by libraries, universities, and other agencies.

The term Primary Sources is occasionally used to mean "empirical research" or "original case studies."  If you're unsure about the Primary Sources you need for class, please consult with your instructor.

Locating primary documents in the Library Catalog 
To locate primary resources, perform an All Fields (Keyword) search on the person, place, event, etc., in combination with one of the following terms:

  • diaries     
  • personal narratives
  • writings
  • correspondence
  • sources
  • pictorial works
  • maps
  • speeches
  • addresses
  • facsimiles
  • atlases
  • ephemera
  • music

Brainstorm: Need a Primary Source?

There are many kinds of primary sources.  Primary documents vary by discpline, and sometimes by the reader's perspective. Not sure what kind of document you are looking for?  Consider these:

  • Places: maps, atlases, travel journals, navigational charts, train schedules, architectural drawings and plans
  • Pictorial works: photos, portraits, artwork, films of events
  • Writings: diaries, corresdondence, letters, ledgers
  • Laws: treaties, hearings, minutes, debates, court opinions
  • Observations of an event: newpaper articles, memoirs, editorials, concert reviews
  • Original experiments: case notes, journal entries
  • Historical artifacts: anything from eating utensils to fashion
  • Media: recordings, oral histories and transcriptions, radio and TV programs
  • Arts: concert programs, sheet music, broadsides, ballads, drama, sketches
  • Homelife: crafts, recipes, bills, receipts
  • Facsimiles -- copies (usually photographs) of an original artwork or manuscript