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How do I Find Primary Sources?

Primary sources

These are simply a first-hand accounts or original records of an event. Primary sources may include newspaper articles, diaries, letters, interviews, maps, government documents, oral histories, videos, illustrations, photographs, and more. A primary source may also be the result(s) of original research, including quantitative or qualitative data.

Secondary sources

These are resources that were created “after the fact” by persons who were not present at the actual event--they are simply reporting on information they have received “second hand”. Secondary sources usually offer an analysis or interpretation of primary source materials. For example, most scholarly textbooks and reference sources like encyclopedias would be considered secondary sources.

The Confusion

Whether or not a resource is a primary or a secondary source may also depend on what your topic is and how you are using that resource. For example, a newspaper article written in 1941 about the 2nd World War would be a primary source, but a newspaper article written in 2008 about WWII would be a secondary source. Books that are secondary sources may also contain primary sources within them; for example, excerpts from interviews, copies of government treaties or legislation, or research results. Try to find the original source (looking in the book’s footnotes and/or bibliography will help!) and you can use them as primary sources for your own research topic.
Below are some links to help you find primary sources, but you may also want to check out the Reference and User Services Association’s Guide to Primary Sources on the web.

Online Sources of Primary Documents

19th Century Index [?]

C19 indexes a wide range of 19th-century British and American books, periodicals, newspapers and other documents such as British Parliamentary papers. C19 also includes Archives USA, an index to archival repositories and description of their collections. With the exception of journals in the American Periodicals series, C19 does not provide links to full-text articles.

American Memory Project [?]

Browse or search for primary sources. Collections include: Advertising, African American history, Architecture, Cities/Towns, Environment and Conservation, Immigration and American Expansion, Native American History, Presidents, Religion, Sports and Recreation, Technology and Industry, War and Military, and Women’s History.

American Presidency Project [?]

Contains over 86,000 documents related to the study of the Presidency, data for all U.S. Presidential elections, major speeches from public appearances, audio/video media, and more.

Avalon Project [?]

Search chronologically for documents in law, history, and diplomacy. Collection begins at 4000 BCE and continues through the present.

Behind the Veil: Documenting African American Life in the Jim Crow South [?]

Duke University’s online oral history collection includes 100 digitized interviews, searchable by state, gender, interviewee, etc.

Cummins Photo Collection: Hamilton, Ohio [?]

This searchable database of digital images from Lane Public Library includes historic images of Hamilton, Ohio dating back to the early 1900’s.

Early American Imprints: The Digital Evans [?]

Provides the full text of most printed matter issued in what became the United States and Canada from 1640-1800, including books, pamphlets, and broadsides. Based on the American Bibliography compiled by Charles Evans, with updates and corrections, EAI offers rich indexing (author, title, subject, genre, publishing location, language, more) and easy access to the print culture of Colonial and early republican America. Complemented by the microform collection Early American Newspapers and two full-text collections, Early English Books Online and Eighteenth Century Collections Online.

Early English Books Online [?]

Early English Books Online (EEBO) contains over 125,000 books, pamphlets, broadsides, and other printed matter printed in England or its Colonies or in English anywhere during the years 1475-1700. EEBO titles appear as digital images and can be downloaded as pdf files. The database is searchable, but see also the English Short-Title Catalogue that allows more complex searches and is keyed to EEBO titles. Some 25,000 of the EEBO titles are being digitized with SGML coding as part of the “Text Creation Partnership.’ Included here are titles listed in Pollard & Redgrave’s Short-Title Catalogue (1475-1640), Wing’s Short-Title Catalogue (1641-1700), and the Thomason Tracts (1640-1661); titles in the Tract Supplement will be added starting in 2007-08.

Eighteenth Century Collections Online [?]

The Eighteenth Century Collections Online is a comprehensive digital collection of nearly 140,000 English-language titles covering all subjects published between 1701 and 1800 in the United Kingdom and North America (and including foreign-language titles printed in the UK). It allows both full-text searching of more than 33 million pages of material and sophisticated searches by subject, author, publisher, and back-of-the-book indexes.

Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History [?]

Searchable database of over 60,000 documents, includes primary documents, curriculum modules, and visual aids. You can also browse by era, including the Founding Era, Westward Expansion, Great Depression, etc.

Historic Documents (2009-current) [?]

Published annually since 1972, the Historic Documents Series now contains 35 volumes of primary sources. Each volume includes approximately one hundred documents covering the most significant events of the year. These documents range from presidential speeches, international agreements, and Supreme Court decisions to U.S. governmental reports, scientific findings, and cultural discussions.

Internet History Sourcebooks [?]

The Internet History Sourcebooks Project is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted historical texts covering the Ancient, Medieval, and Modern periods.

King Center, Archive of Martin Luther King, Jr. [?]

The King Center provides a browsable and searchable digital archive of over 200,000 documents, including speeches, notes, letters, etc.

Making of America [?]

Digital library of primary sources in American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction. The collection is particularly strong in the subject areas of education, psychology, American history, sociology, religion, and science and technology. Contains approximately 10,000 books and 50,000 journal articles with 19th century imprints.

National Archives and Records Administration [?]

The NARA is the national record-keeper of all documents and materials produced by the U.S. Federal government. Search for resources or browse for materials by time span, war and international relations, government spending, and more. Can also browse a wide variety of subjects.

National Archives Experience: Digital Vaults [?]

Website includes searchable database of 1200 documents, photographs, drawings, maps, etc. from all periods of U.S. history up until 2004. You can even “collect” images and then click on "create" to make posters or a movie out of the images you selected.

North American Indian Thought and Culture [?]

This fifth release of North American Indian Thought and Culture contains over 119,000 pages of text and images. Included are biographies, auto-biographies, personal narratives, speeches, diaries, letters, and oral histories. The database represents the largest compilation ever created of biographical information on indigenous peoples from all areas of North America.

Ohio Memory Project [?]

Contains a large selection of manuscripts, images, oral histories, etc. from Ohio history and is browsable by Subject or Place.

Sabin Americana 1500-1926 [?]

An online collection of books about the Americas published 1500-1926 and covering history, social and political issues, science, religion, slavery, emmigration, women, and many, many other subjects. Based on the Bibliotheca Americana compiled by Joseph Sabin (begun in 1868) and augmented by the work of others, this complements Early American Imprints (books printed in North America, EEBO and ECCO (books printed in England or English 1475-1800)), and the American Periodical Series Online.