Finding Primary Source Materials
About this guide: This guide is designed to help you understand what a primary source is and to provide tools for finding primary sources on a number of topics and subjects. Use the tabs to navigate through the pages of this guide.
image: World War I propaganda poster from the collections at the Library of Congress. Read more about it here.
Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about primary sources:
What is a primary source?: Primary sources are the evidence of history. They are first-person accounts or direct evidence of the topics or events you are researching. There are many types of primary sources. They may include letters, diaries, photographs, autobiographies, records (such as birth certificates or land deeds), treaties and other government documents, news footage and eyewitness articles, plays, movies, works of art, speeches, interviews, oral histories, memoirs, architectural plans, and many other kinds of artifacts.
How is a primary source different from a secondary source?: Secondary sources analyze, summarize, interpret, or comment on primary sources. They are usually created by someone who did not experience an event first-hand. They may include biographies, scholarly journal articles, literary criticism, political analysis, news reports other than first-hand accounts, reference books, and textbooks.
What are some examples of primary sources?: If we take the Egyptian Revolution that occurred in 2011 as an example, primary sources from this extended event include:
- Tweets by Egyptian protestors
- Photos taken and articles written by journalists who witnessed the Egyptian protests
- Video on Egyptian TV of the announcement of Mubarak’s resignation
- Email sent from an Egyptian student who witnessed the protests, to her family outside of Egypt
What are some examples of secondary sources?: Looking at the same example above, the Egyptian Revolution that occurred in 2011, secondary sources related to this event include:
- Your Facebook status updates expressing your opinion about the Egyptian protests
- Middle East expert’s upcoming paper on the Egyptian protests
- News commentator’s analysis of Mubarak’s resignation
- Email sent from an Egyptian student’s family to their friends, relaying what they heard from their daughter about witnessing the protests
What do I do if I’m still confused?: Please contact us via one of the options in the right-hand menu if you can’t find primary sources on your topic, aren’t sure whether what you’ve found is actually a primary source, or if you have any other questions!
The following reference books include copies of primary sources:
- Daily Life through World History in Primary Documents — available online, or in the library at R 909 M876d 2009
Use the library catalog to find primary sources on a topic. Choose from the keywords listed below and add them to your search to explore what primary source material we have on your topic:
- personal narratives
Sample search: “world war ii” and personal narratives
Sample search: slavery and sources
Sample search: “world war i” and correspondence
- early works
A few library databases contain primary source materials. When using these resources from off-campus, you’ll be prompted to log in with your Pipeline username and password.
- Alexander Street Press Videos: Provides online access to nearly 43,000 academic videos (over 20,000 hours) in a wide range of subjects and disciplines, including: anthropology; the arts; business; education; engineering; environmental studies; ethnic studies; health; history; LGBT studies; psychology; and news.
- ARTstor: This database provides images (prints, posters, maps, photographs) in a variety of subject areas. Use the advanced search to limit your results by date to find works from a particular time period.
- History Reference Center: Primary source material in this database includes treaties, photos, maps and videos. Use the advanced search and select “primary source document” in the “publication type” menu.
- JSTOR: Some journals found in JSTOR were published as early as the mid 19th century and could be considered primary sources depending on your research topic. Use the advanced search and limit your search by date to find materials written during a particular time period. For example, enter “slavery” into the search box and limit the publication dates to 1800-1850 to see what was written about slavery before it was abolished in the United States.
If you are primarily interested in statistics, try our research guide on sources of statistical information.
There are many freely available websites containing primary source material, usually sponsored by a university or a government agency. Here is just a sample of some excellent sites which have primary sources organized around one or more historical themes or a particular time period.
- Ad*Access — Duke University’s Digital Libraries Collection: Includes images of over 7,000 ads printed in the U.S. and Canada between 1911 and 1955.
- American Memory — Library of Congress: Includes “written and spoken words, sound recordings, still and moving images, prints, maps, and sheet music that document the American experience.” Check out the other Library of Congress digital collections as well.
- The Avalon Project — Yale Law School: Includes documents in law, history, economics, politics, diplomacy, and government from ancient times to the present.
- Calisphere — University of California: Includes over 150,000 digitized primary sources.
- Cybrary of the Holocaust — Library of Congress: This is one of several Internet collections on the subject and probably the best. Contains many documents and images of survivors, perpetrators, Holocaust deniers, liberators, etc.
- EuroDocs — Brigham Young University: Includes Western European historical documents.
- GPO’s Federal Digital System: This resource provides free online access to historic and current official publications from all three branches of the Federal Government.
- The Internet Classics Archive — MIT: Almost 400 English translations of classical Greek and Roman texts.
- Internet Medieval Sourcebook — Fordham University: This resource includes full texts of medieval sources and much more.
- Making of America — University of Michigan: This project is a huge digital library of primary sources having to do with nineteenth-century American history.
- Making of America — Cornell University: Contains approximately 5,000 books and journal volumes with nineteenth-century imprints. It is made possible by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
- 19th Century Documents Project — Furman University: “When completed this collection will include accurate transcriptions of many important and representative primary texts from nineteenth century American history, with special emphasis on those sources that shed light on sectional conflict and transformations in regional identity.”
- Online Archive of California — University of California: The OAC “provides free public access to detailed descriptions of primary resource collections” and “contains more than 220,000 digital images and documents.”
- The Perseus Project — Tufts University: “An Evolving Digital Library on Ancient Greece.”
- Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection — University of Texas: Includes historical maps from all over the world.
- Repositories of Primary Sources — University of Idaho: A directory of over 5,000 websites describing holdings primary sources, some of which are available online.
- Transatlantic Slave Trade Database — Emory University, and others: Includes both primary and secondary sources on “almost 35,000 slaving voyages.”
- World Digital Library — Supported by UNESCO: This resource makes available on the Internet, free of charge and in multilingual format, significant primary materials from countries and cultures around the world.
Here are some resources for creating citations in three common styles. As always, contact us via one of the options in the right-hand menu if you have questions!
- Guide to citing primary sources in Chicago style from the Library of Congress.
- General Chicago style guide from Purdue’s Online Writing Lab