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Early American Studies

What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are materials created at the time of the topic you are researching, or by an eyewitness to the topic.  Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to what actually happened during an historical event or time period.  They are not commentary about your topic, but are the topic you are commenting about. 

Watch this brief video for help differentiating between primary and secondary sources:

Finding Primary Sources

There are certain words that appear in the subject headings of items in the library catalog that indicate primary sources. The term used most frequently is sources, but there are others. To identify primary sources in the library catalog, follow these steps:

1. Go to Advanced Search
2. Enter your keyword(s) in the first search box
3. Enter the word sources in the next search box, and select "Subject" from the Field menu

You'll notice that sources appears in the subject headings section of each item in your results list, indicating the presence or inclusion of primary sources in that item.  Depending on the period being studied, it can also be helpful to limit your search by publication date.  

Other search terms that might help you find primary sources include:

  • correspondence
  • letters
  • sermons
  • chronicles
  • records
  • diaries
  • personal narratives
  • memoirs
  • interviews
  • speeches

NOTE: This is just a tip - it will NOT always give you results. 

Search for a specific primary source by title, using quotation marks.

Example: "Woodrow Wilson's 14 Points" 

Search for your topic by keyword in conjunction with the term primary source.

Example:  Woodrow Wilson primary source  

Use an Advanced search in Google to limit search results by a specific domain (.edu, .gov, etc.).  See our Google guide for help.


For more information on finding primary sources on the web, see the online guide maintained by the History Section of RUSA (a division of the American Library Association):

Books, Imprints, & Periodicals

Manuscripts & Documents

Congressional Papers

Databases:  (Note: you must be in the library to access these electronic resources)

Print, Microfilm, & Internet Sites:

Newspapers

Statistics

Print Sources

The following are a select group of titles available in print.  Additional titles can be identified by searching the library catalog.

  • American Diaries. 2 vols. 1983. [Ref. CT 214 A75]
  • American Women's Diaries - Southern Women. [MF 1104]
  • Dictionary of Historic Documents. 1991. [Ref. D 9 D525 2003]
  • Documents of American History. 2 vols. 1988. [Ref. E 173 D59 1988]
  • Historic Documents.1972-1990 [Ref. E 839.5 H57]
  • Treaties and Other International Agreements of the United States of America, 1776-1949. [Doc. S 9.12:2]
  • Women's Diaries, Journals, and Letters: An Annotated Bibliography. 1989. [Ref. CT 3230 C5 1989]