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How Do I… Find Primary Sources?

What is a Primary Source?

Depending on the discipline that you’re working in, primary sources might have different meanings. In the sciences, a primary source usually refers to primary research, which is an original research study. In the humanities and social sciences, a primary source could refer to a first-hand account or something written during a specific time period. This page will focus on primary sources in the humanities and social sciences.

Primary sources are the evidence of history. They are the first-hand accounts of an event or period of time created by participants or observers. There are many kinds of primary sources including:

  • texts (letters, diaries, government reports, newspaper accounts, autobiographies)
  • images (photographs, paintings, advertisements, posters)
  • artifacts (buildings, clothing, sculpture, coins)
  • audio/visual (songs, oral history interviews, documentaries)

Keep in mind that some primary sources are published formally (newspaper articles), while others are published non-formally (speech transcripts).

Thinking About Your Search Terms

An important thing to consider when searching for primary sources is that the terminology surrounding your topic has likely changed over time. Since you are looking for sources from another time period, you will need to think about how people talked about your topic during that time period.

  • Example: You are researching nuclear bombs during WWII, but during the mid-1900s they were referred to as “atomic bombs.”
  • Example: You are researching how racism affected the lives of people in the early 1800s, but “racism” was not a term that was used widely by people in that time period.

If you are struggling with the terminology issues, one key alternative is to search for the names of people, events or documents related to your topic.

Searching for Primary Sources

*Note: The following tutorials were created for HIST105/305 and some of the examples may be specific to that assignment, but can be applied to other research.

How to Find Primary Sources in Search It

How to Use Historical New York Times

How to Use London Times

For a collection of resources that will help you find primary sources, please visit our Primary Source Research Guide.

If you are doing research for History 105/305, please check out the Roots of Contemporary Issues Research Guide.

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