What is a Primary Source?

A primary source is a firsthand account from participants or observers of an event or period of time.

Examples of historical primary sources include but are not limited to:

  • Published manuscripts such as autobiographies
  • Unpublished manuscripts such as diaries and journal entries
  • Articles and newspapers of firsthand accounts of events
  • Audio visual materials such as speeches, images, videos or music

Find Primary Sources in the Library

Search Everything

Find by Topic

Let’s start with a topic search, which involves selecting main keywords from your topic and using them in the Search Everything box on the library homepage. For health research, this is the most effective way to generate results relevant to your topic. However, when searching for historical primary sources, it's best to combine your keywords with the content type.

Content types include but are not limited to:

  • correspondence
  • diaries
  • early works
  • interviews
  • personal narratives
  • speeches
  • documents
  • periodicals 

Instead of using the basic search as you do with secondary sources, start your search for primary sources using the advanced search. Follow the instructions below.

  1. Enter the keywords for your topic into the Search Everything box on the library homepage, and select Search. The image below demonstrates a search for the American Revolution.

  1. Select the Advanced Search link to the right of the search box, as shown in the image below.

  1. In the Advanced Search, enter your keywords into the search boxes. Use the first box for the topic keywords, which should already be in there from the initial search, and use the second box for the primary source keywords. The image below shows American Revolution in the first box and correspondence in the second box.
  2. In the first line, select is (exact) from the drop-down menu between the Any field and the topic keywords to look for the exact search phrase. 
  3. Select English from the Language drop-down menu, and select Search.

  1. Use the filters, if necessary, to refine your results.

Find by Citation

The easiest way to find a primary source is by doing a citation search in the Search Everything box on the library homepage. This search system will identify and use the author, title and date of the citation to search the collection. Enter the full citation into the search box and select Search. If we have it in our collection, it will show up in the search results. You can also search with elements of the citation such as title or author.

American History or Modern World History Databases

The American History and Modern World History databases from Infobase offer primary source collections of historical events. Since these databases have similar layouts, you will find the primary sources in the same location for both. Follow the steps below to find them.

  1. Select one of the database links on the second page of this guide.
  2. From the database homepage, select the View All link next to the Featured Primary Sources title at the top of the page, or select the Primary Sources link under the Browse Resources section on the right-hand side of the page, as shown in the image below.

  1. Browse the list of available sources, or use the filters on the right-hand side of the results to narrow it down by topic, as shown in the image below.

Find Primary Sources Online

If the primary source of interest is not available in the library, then you should take your search online. To find credible primary sources, make sure to review the tips on how to evaluate a website on the How to Do Library Research guide.

The Library of Congress and National Archives offer extensive collections of historical primary sources to the public. The links below were selected by your instructors.

America's Founding Documents

Historic Events