History: Find Primary Sources

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Primary Sources

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What is a Primary Source?

Generally speaking, a primary source is a document that was created at or during the time being researched. Secondary sources are ones that are created after the event and usually are reviewing or analyzing the event or period.

For example, a diary of a Civil War soldier written during the war would be considered a primary source. However, a book or article written in the 1990s analyzing a particular battle in the war would be considered a secondary source.

Databases with some Primary Sources

Help Finding Primary Documents

Primary documents are an important part of historical research. Finding these documents can be a little tricky sometimes, so here are few ideas to help you find some primary sources, especially older primary sources.

  • When searching in the library catalog or one of the databases try adding in a descriptive search term such as: documents, primary documents, primary sources, papers, narratives, letters, diaries, correspondence, interviews or speeches.
  • Be sure to review the references (or bibliography) on all resources you find. Even if you find something on your topic that is not a primary source, review its references because it may lead you to some primary documents.
  • If you find the name of a primary source you could use, but you can not find it in the databases, be sure to check a variety online search engines as well. Numerous educational institutions, libraries, museums, government agencies and even non-profit organizations have been doing a vareity of digitization projects and there is always a chance that a document you could use is available online.
  • If available try searching newspapers from whatever area or time period you need. It is one way of potentially finding a primary source. For example, the NSU library has a full text database of the New York Times from 1851 to 2007.

Websites with some Primary Sources

Here are some websites that contain some online historical primary sources.