Library Page

Finding Primary Sources

I. What are Primary Sources?

  • Definition

Primary sources are the evidence left behind by participants or observers. 

"Primary sources originate in the time period that historians are studying.  They vary a great deal. They may include personal memoirs, government documents, transcripts of legal proceedings, oral histories and traditions, archaeological and biological evidence, and visual sources like paintings and photographs. " ( Storey, William Kelleher.  Writing History: A guide for Students. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999, p.18).

  • Formats of Primary Sources

The categories below are neither rigorously exclusive nor hierarchical. A single primary source may overlap one or more of these categories. Some material may have appeared in print before, edited or unedited.  For instance,  a manuscript may have been printed and published at some point as a book. " Nonetheless, these categories have proven to be practical concepts for organizing and describing the kinds of sources that document history, and secondary sources, such as bibliographies, often focus on materials in one of these formats or categories." ( Yale University Library Primary Sources Research,


1. Printed or published text
  • Books and monographs


A monograph is "a systematic and complete treatise on a particular subject" (ALA glossary of library and information science, Chicago: ALA, 1983, p.48), in one or many volumes, complete at the time of publication or published with the intention of being completed at some future date.
  • Serials
    • Magazines and newspapers are periodicals of interest to general readers
    • Scholarly journals are publications that report the research of scholars and often quite discipline specific.
A serial is a publication that is usually published at regular, established intervals, with the intention of continuing publication indefinitely. Magazines and newspapers -- often offer the most immediate published accounts of and reactions to historical events. The important thing is to distinguish between material written at the time of an event as a kind of report, and material written much later, as historical analysis.
  • Government documents
Government documents are publications issued by federal, state, municipal and international governments. 
  • Records of organizations and agencies
The minutes, reports, correspondence, etc. of an organization or agency serve as an ongoing record of the activity and thinking of that organization or agency.  There are many kinds of records, such as: births, deaths, marriages certificates; permits and licenses issued; census data; etc. 
2. Manuscripts Documents created by individuals, not as employees or representatives of an organization, are called manuscripts or personal papers. These documents can be either hand-written or typed, varying in length from a single note or letter to a full-length book. Include among other things: personal papers, memoirs, autobiographies, correspondence, diaries, letters, artificial collections, etc.
3. Archives Archival documents may be either personal papers or institutional archives. They could include bulletins, case files, contracts, correspondence, diaries, journals, ledgers, memoirs, memorandums, minutes, photographs, reports, rosters, and videorecordings. 
4. Visual Materials / Artifacts
  • Original art
single paintings, drawings, watercolors, sculpture, architectural drawings, and plans, monoprints
  •  Films
  •  Prints
graphic art, etchings, engravings, lithographs, woodcuts, mezzotints, posters, trade cards, artists' prints, and computer-generated graphics
  • Photographs
  • Physical objects
buildings, furniture, tools, appliances, household items, clothing, etc. 
5. Digital collections Digital collections may have been transferred from their original format to a machine-readable form or, may exist only as electronic resources. Data may be stored on disk, computer tape, CD-ROM or from Internet sites.

II. Strategies for Finding Primary Sources

Locating primary source materials to use in a research paper can be a daunting task. Professional historians travel widely to find all the relevant sources for a given historical topic and may spend years in repositories accumulating data for their research. Students rarely have the time or resources to go wherever the primary sources are. What can a student do?

1. Where to Find

The Library Collection addresses, correspondence, diaries, documents, interviews, periodicals, personal narratives, sources, speeches, etc...      
Online Databases Curriculum Resource Center (CRC)/Facts on File, AccuNet/AP Multimedia Archive
The World Wide Web American Memory;
Latin American Network Information Center (LANIC)
Archival Institutions Governmental archives
  • National Archives-Pacific Southwest Region
  • National Archives and Records Administration
  • California State Archives, etc...
Institutional archives
  • Episcopal Diocese of California Archives
  • Hewlett-Packard Company, Archives, etc...
Historical societies
  • Santa Barbara Historical Society
  • Chinese Historical Society of Southern California
  • Pasadena Historical Society, etc...
Special collections in libraries
  • California State University, Northridge, Urban Archives Center,
  • UCLA Department of Special Collections
  • UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library, Manuscripts Division, etc...

2. Familiarizing Yourself with Background Information

  • Reference Source
    A first step you need to do to find primary materials is to familiarize yourself with the background information on your topic. Library reference collection is a great place to get started. These reference materials will give you a good overview of the topic, will outline the basic historical context, and will help you identify key issues, events, participants, dates, and even keywords needed for your research.

    Examples of Reference Sources:
    • Specialized encyclopedias
      • Encyclopedia of Civil War
      • Encyclopedia of Asian History
    • Chronolgies
      • Chronology of World Hisotry: a Calendar of Principal Events from 3000 BC to AD 1976
      • The Timetables of History: a Horizontal Linkage of People and Events
    • Factbooks
      • Encyclopedia of American Facts and Dates
    • Biographical dictionaries adn encyclopedias
      • Dictionary of World Biography
      • Current Biography (1940-present)
    • Specialized bibliographies and guides to research
      • Bibliographies in American History: Guide to Materials for Research
      • Sources of Information for Historical Research

  • Textbooks and Journal Articles
    Textbooks and journal articles, especially those with extensive bibliographies and other secondary sources can provide you background informaiton and clues about the event, participants involved, as well as source of materials useful for your research.

Finding Primary Sources using Catalog

  • Type of Materials

Addresses Events Pictorial works
Autobiographies Eye witnesses Personal narratives
Correspondences Interviews Sources
Diaries Letters Speeches
Documents Memoirs Transcripts
Evidence Oral history
  • Combine Type of Materials with Your Topic

    • Great depression and interviews

    • Great depression and narratives

    • Textile workers and letters

    • World War and narratives

    • New Deal and documents

    • Dust bowl and pictorial works

    • Scopes trial and transcript

    • Labor history sources

    • Inaugural addresses 

    • Ancient Rome sources

    • Greece evidence

  • Familiarizing with Background Information

  • Library Catalog

The Cal State LA Library collection has wealth of resources for primary sources for historical research on a wide variety of topics.  The Catalog allows you to conduct both basic and advanced searches, and also allows you to save or email search results. 


Sample Search Titles Call#
100 key documents in American democracy E173 .A15 1994 
Documents of American history E173 .C66 1958 
America through the eyes of its people, Primary sources in American history E 173.A723 1997
The inaugural addresses of the presidents of the united States 1789-1985 E 173 I52 Oversize
Major problems in the Civil War and Reconstruction : documents and essays E464 .M22 1991 
They saw it happen in classical times; an anthology of eye-witnesses' accounts of events in the histories of Greece and Rome, 1400 B. C.-A. D. 540.  D52.W6
Ancient Greece : social and historical documents from archaic times to the death of Socrates (800-399 B.C.) DF75.D55 2000
Ancient Sparta, a re-examination of the evidence DF261.S8 A85 1971
Collected letters of a Renaissance feminist PA85.C4 A4 1997
  • WorldCat
    Provides catalog access to 38+ million holdings worldwide. Includes catalog records for books, journals, films, sound recordings, videos, etc.

    • WorldCat is useful for locating books in nearby L.A. area libraries. 

    • You can access WorldCat via the Library Web's databases.

    • Search Steps: 

      • Select Library Databases from the Library Web Homepage

      • Select the WorldCat in Alphabetical database listing

      • Conduct your search

      • Find out libraries own the item you need:

        • Click on a title

        • Click on "Libraries that Own Item"

      • Go to the library that owns the item or 

      • Request the item through InterLibrary Loan

2. Using Periodical and Newspaper Indexes Covering the Time Period

Use periodical and newspaper index covering the time period of the events you're researching to identify contemporary accounts. These indexes are available in either print or on the Web. 

          Examples of search terms:  
          [Country adjective, e.g. American] periodicals--bibliography  
          [Name of ethnic group] native american periodicals     

Sample Search Titles Call #
A history of early American Magazines 1741-1789 PN4877.R5
A history and bibliography of American magazines 1810-1820 PN4877 .E3 
American newspapers, 1821-1936; a union list of files available in the United States and Canada Z6945 .A53 
Extant collections of early Black newspapers : a research guide to the Black press, 1880-1915, with an index to the Boston guardian, 1902-1904 Z6944.N39 C357 
Native American periodicals and newspapers, 1828-1982 : bibliography, publishing record, and holdings Z1209.2.U5 D36 1984 
New York Times Index 1913- AI21 .N44 
Nineteenth century readers' guide to periodical literature, 1890-1899, with supplementary indexing, 1900-1922. AI3 .R399 
Readers' guide to periodical literature AI3 .R4 

3.  Identifying Popular Fiction, Movies,  and Plays from the Time Period

To identify works of literature, films or popular fiction dealing with a particular event, you can consult one of the following print indexes or web site:

  • Fiction Catalog   Z5916 .W74

  • Short Story Index   PN6014 S56b

  • Play Index   Z5781.P53

  • Internet Movie Database

4. Using Indexes to Government Documents 
Publications generated by a government body, public records, reports and statistics such as census records, laws, Supreme Court decisions and treaties, are excellent sources of primary materials. Go to the reference desk for assistance in locating government documents related to your topic. You can also search several indexes to government documents available on the Web from the Library Web's Government Info page (/sites/default/files/library/dbs/~gis.htm).  

  • Advanced Search in Library Catalog

  • Marcive (U.S. Federal Documents, 1976-current)

  • Melvyl (California Documents, all years)

  • Lexis/Nexis (a Library database)

5. Searching Primary Sources on the Web
Many Web sites contain excellent primary resources. Below is a list of web sites for primary historical sources, but is not intended to be comprehensive. You are encouraged to search the Web using search engines. 

To find a list of search engines to use, please check the Web Search Engines page at 
/sites/default/files/library/startwww.htm _

Examples of search terms:
united states history primary sources
                                                 great depression photographs
                                                 dust bowl interviews


  • Please note that search engines only cover a section of the Internet
    Major search engines search less than one-half of all web pages.

  • Please note that more and more information is being lost to the invisible web
    Many web pages are database generated and are not searched by major search engines.
    For invisible web search assistance, go to the University of California, Berkeley Library The Invisible Web tutorial (
    and Librarian's Index to the Internet  (

  • Make sure you are a critical consumer
    Anyone can publish a web page and make it accessible to the world.  Beware of bias, mistakes and outright fabrication.
    For help, go to the library's Evaluating Information on the World Wide Web (/sites/default/files/library/evaluatewww.htm).

1) General Primary Sources 

  • Perseus Digital Library
    Digital library of resources for the study of the ancient world. Originally begun with coverage of the Archaic and Classical Greek world, has now expanded to Latin text and tools, Renaissance materials, and Papyri. Contains hundreds of texts by the major ancient authors and lexica and morphological databases and catalog entries for over 2,800 vases, sculptures, coins, buildings, and sites, including over 13,000 photographs of such objects.

  • American Memory from the Library of Congress
    Consists of collections of primary source and archival material relating to American culture and history. Topics include: African American Civil War, Conservation Movement, Continental Congress, Farm Security Administration, Architectural History, Early Motion Pictures, Variety Stage, Woman Suffrage, the papers of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, Today in History, Portraits of the Presidents and First Ladies, 1789-Present, and more.

  • American Memory Timeline
    Primary sources for seven time periods of United States history are provided at this site covering 1783-1968. Each period is subdivided into various topics and contains an overview. Included are images, letters, lyrics, interviews, and more.

  • American Treasures of the Library of Congress
    An unprecedented permanent exhibition of the rarest, most interesting or significant items relating to America's past.

  • A Chronology of US Historical Documents
    US historical documents arranged from pre-colonial era to present. 

  • Eighteenth-Century Studies
    Covers archives works of the eighteenth century from the perspectives of literary and cultural studies. Novels, plays, memoirs, treatises and poems of the period are kept here (in some cases, influential texts from before 1700 or after 1800 as well), along with modern criticism.

  • Historical Newspapers Online
    Historical Newspapers Online is a website that provides valuable reference material of nineteenth and twentieth century history. It contains some of the best news coverage across two centuries.

  • Making of America
    Making of America (MOA) is a digital library of primary sources in American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction. The collection is particularly strong in the subject areas of education, psychology, American history, sociology, religion, and science and technology. The collection currently contains approximately 8,500 books and 50,000 journal articles with 19th century imprints. The project represents a major collaborative endeavor in preservation and electronic access to historical texts.

  • Nineteenth Century Documents Project
    When completed this collection will include accurate transcriptions of many important and representative primary texts from nineteenth century American history, with special emphasis on those sources that shed light on sectional conflict and transformations in regional identity. 

  • Primary Source Collections
    A list of Internet Resources from American Memory web site. 


  • Repositories of Primary Sources
    This site contains links to "over 3,400 Web sites describing holdings of manuscripts, archives, rare books, historical photographs, and other primary sources for the research scholar." Access is by region or by an alphabetical index of state, province, or country. "The list focuses on actual repositories; therefore virtual collections are excluded." There is also a list of other's lists of archives and repositories.

2) Visual Materials

  • America from the Great Depression to World War II
    55,000 black and white (more coming) and 1600 color photographs from the Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information collection have been digitized. Includes scenes of rural and small-town life, migrant labor, the effects of the Great Depression, and mobilization for World War II.  Part of the American Memory series from Library of Congress.

  • America's First Look into the Camera
    Subtitled Daguerreotype Portraits and Views, 1839 - 1864, this site is a searchable and browsable collection of more than 650 photographs taken between 1839 and 1864. The majority are portraits taken by the Mathew Brady studio. There are also photographic views of buildings and monuments in the Washington-Baltimore area and street scenes in Philadelphia. Part of American Memory from the Library of Congress. 

  • American Landscape and Architectural Design, 1850-1920
    This searchable or browsable "collection of approximately 2800 lantern slides represents an historical view of American buildings and landscapes built during the period 1850-1920." It includes the work of Frederick Law Olmstead, designer of New York's Central Park. It also contains "views of cities, specific buildings, parks, estates and gardens, including a complete history of Boston's Park System." There are images of plans, maps, and models. From the Library of Congress' American Memory Project.

  • By the People, For the People
    Subtitled Posters from the WPA, 1936-1943, this searchable site contains over 900 posters from Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. Search by keyword or browse by subject or creator. Full descriptive information is provided. Created in silk-screen, lithograph, and woodcut mediums, they were "designed to publicize health and safety programs; cultural programs including art exhibitions, theatrical, and musical performances; travel and tourism; educational programs; and community activities in seventeen states and the District of Columbia."  From the Library of Congress' American Memory Project.

  • Internet Movie Database
    most comprehensive movie database on or off the Internet. It covers over 250,000 movies,  video, TV movies and TV shows, 500,000 actors, and 50,000 directors. Information includes filmographies for all professions in the industry; plot summaries; character names; movie ratings; running times; trivia; quotes etc..

    You can find a list of historical movies by using Browse--Facts & Trivia--Titles by year

3)  Oral History

  • Link Library (of personal experience pages)
    An archive of primary source materials. Includes first-hand information as well as oral history resources and art projects based on people's experiences. 

  • Oral History Online! -
    These are the topics and some of the interviewees: Suffragists (Alice Paul), Disabled Persons Independence Movement (Hale Zukas); Health Care, Science, and Technology (Barbara Honeyman Heath Roll); University History Series (Arleigh Williams); University of California Black Alumni Series (Lionel Wilson); and the Earl Warren Oral History Project (Edmund G. Brown, Sr.). The searchable transcriptions are from the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.

4) Biographical Resources

  • Lives, the Biography Resource -
    Extensive, annotated directory of links to sites that focus on the lives of individuals or groups of people, worthwhile collections of links to other biographical resources, primary biographical source material such as images, diaries, memoirs, correspondence, interviews, oral histories, etc., and good biographical dictionaries. There are special pages featuring African Americans, Women, U.S. Civil War, Holocaust Survivors and Rescuers, and Canadians. In addition there are indexes by collections, professions, eras, regions, and criticism, as well as by individual.

5) Public Records / Government Documents 

  • Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States
    This guide is based on a paper version with the same title compiled by Robert B. Matchette et al in 1995. This version incorporates descriptive information about federal records acquired by the National Archives after the 1995 paper edition went to press, and it is regularly updated to reflect new acquisitions of federal records.

  • National Archives and Records Administration
    Find holdings by federal government organization, media, location, and topics.

  • United States Historical Census Data
    The data presented here describe the people and the economy of the US for each state and county from 1790 to 1960.

  • Supreme Court Decisions on Lexis/Nexis 
    From the Library Web's Database page, select Lexis / Nexis. 
    Full text opinions of all Supreme Court cases since 1790. In addition, all dispositions of cases that were appealed to the Supreme Court are included.

6) Historical Maps

  • features several hundred historical maps from all areas of the world, including helpful jurisdictional maps for every U.S. state.

  • Curriculum Resource Center -- Facts on File (a library database)
    It provides access to maps, science diagrams, science experiments, historical images, historical timelines, and other handouts. All of these materials can be printed and used for worksheets, overheads, etc. 

7) Music

  • Historic American Sheet Music Project
    Digitized images of over 3000 pieces of American sheet music from 1850 to 1920 are presented, along with their full-color cover art and advertisements, in this searchable index. Search for specific criteria such as subject or date, or browse by cover. From The Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library at Duke University.