Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

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

  • Do background reading in a subject encyclopedia to identify key names, vocabulary, or events
  • Look for primary sources in the footnotes and bibliographies of secondary source books and articles
  • For history and related subjects, check special collections and archives.
  • Create your own: your own research (lab experiments, surveys, interviews, field notes, etc.) creates source material for you to work from while analyzing your topic
  • Many primary sources have been digitized and are available on the web. There are two kinds of primary sources available online: those from a database provided by a company that wants to make money, and documents and other materials, such as audio records or photographs, in the possession of libraries and archives. It is within the mission of most of these to make these sources available to the public for research. These are just a few of the major sites offering links to primary sources and information about them:

Looking in the Library Catalog

Look at the publication date of the book and the birth/death dates of the author. The date of the original publication may give you an indication that you have a primary source. If you have a reprinted book, look for the original publication date. If the birth/death dates of the author are such that he/she lived during the time of your event, you might have a primary source.

Look at the notes in the record. There might be notes in the record that describe the material and give clues as to whether or not it is a primary source. For instance, if there is a note indicating that the work is a facsimile or a reprint, then you might have a primary source.

To find diaries, letters, autobiographies, personal papers, etc., search a person’s name as an author (not as a subject, because that will find materials about them instead of items he/she wrote).

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

Click on the Advanced Search button.

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

 

Searching in Special Collections

The Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) has extensive holdings of manuscripts, university archives, and rare books.  There are a variety of tools available to guide you in finding materials in the SCRC, including the SCRC Collections Database.  You might find it helpful to begin your search at the SCRC's Search Tools page

Don't forget that you also may contact the SCRC staff (spcoll@wm.edu or 757-221-3090) or come into the Special Collections Research Center in person and consult with the staff member on duty for guidance.