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Primary Sources in History

This is a guide to finding, using, and evaluating primary sources in the humanities, with an emphasis on research in history.

How to Find Them

  1. Do background reading in a subject encyclopedia to identify key names, vocabulary, or events
  2. Look for primary sources in the footnotes and bibliographies of secondary source books and articles
  3. For history and related subjects, check special collections and archives.
  4. Use your own research (lab experiments, surveys, interviews, field notes, etc.) source material for you to work from while analyzing your topic
  5. Many primary sources have been digitized and are available on the web. Some will only be accessible through library subscriptions and others will be freely available through organizations, archives and special collections. Not all primary sources are digitized, however.

Looking in the Library Catalog

Look for the following key indicators of a primary source:

  • Publication date and birth/death dates of the author.
  • Original publication date in reprinted books or facsimiles.

These dates should be contemporary to the period of time you are examining. Ex. Topic on 1918 Influenza, primary sources would be published between 1918-1920, or the author would be alive during this time.

To find diaries, letters, autobiographies, personal papers, etc., search a person’s name as an author. 

To see what actual manuscripts we have at Swem Library, do an advanced search in the online catalog:

On the top half of the screen, type what you’re looking for (author, subject, etc.) In another search box type "manuscript".

  • Click on Search Catalog. Manuscript call numbers will be preceded by Mss. (e.g. Mss. 83 H14 for the Karen Lynne Hall Papers). All will be available in our Special Collections area.

The following words are clues that the material might contain primary-source material. These words usually appear in the title or as part of the subject heading:

  • advertisements
  • autobiography/autobiographies
  • correspondence
  • description and travel
  • diary/diaries
  • documents
  • early works to 1800
  • interview/interviews
  • journal
  • letters
  • pamphlets
  • personal narratives
  • trials
  • sources
  • speeches

You can also combine a primary source format word with an event or person

Examples:  letters and Lincoln, diaries and civil war