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HISTORY: Subject Guide

Search tips and resource suggestions for research in history.

In This Section

magnifying glass iconIn this section, you'll find:

 

What are primary sources?

A primary source is a firsthand account created during the time period being studied. It is the words of witnesses or the first record of an event. Primary sources include: letters, diaries, speeches, audio recording, newspaper articles, photographs, and maps. Books can also be primary sources if they are first hand testimonies of an event. 

 

Using primary sources in your research

Try these books for advice on using primary sources in your research - or contact the Reference & Instruction Librarian!

How to Find Primary Sources

Step 1: Identify the subject

Determine your subject by reading background information in encyclopedias, textbooks, dictionaries, etc.

Try to answer the following:

  • Who
  • When
  • Where
  • What

For examples, if your topic is "Women in the American Civil War," then your answers may be:

  • Who: Clara Barton, Harriet Tubman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sarah Edmonds, Mary Todd Lincoln
  • When: 1861-165
  • Where: United States, Washington DC, Camps, etc.
  • What: Mortality & Injuries, Spying, Nursing

Step 2: Identify the type of source

Determine what types of records or documents would have been made during the time period.

Guiding Questions with Potential Sources

  • What was life/society like? - Magazines, newspapers, artwork
  • What were the experiences and beliefs of individuals/groups/organizations? Autobiographies, Interviews, Diaries, Letters
  • What was the state of the government? Proclamations, debates, legislation
  • How many people were involved? Statistics, official records
  • What information was provided to people? Newspapers, artwork, propaganda posters, pamphlets
  • What did the period look and sound like? Artwork, photographs, songs

Step 3: Identify keywords and search

Identify keywords to use in a search. The keywords should describe your subject and include the types of primary source materials you're looking for.

Primary source searches include: sources, documentary history, personal narratives, autobiographies, memoirs, eyewitness, correspondence, letters, diaries, advertising, newspapers, maps, artifacts, archives

screenshot of advanced search in the catalog

Digital Archives

Many archives and museums are digitizing their collections, which means you can view (and often download or save copies) of primary sources from any device with an internet connection.

Listed here are some search tools for finding archival material, as well as some libraries, archives, and museums with extensive digitized collections.

 

Search Tools

Libraries, Archives & Museums