Finding Primary Sources

Finding Primary Sources

II. Strategies for finding primary sources

Where to find?
Familiarizing yourself with background information
Type of materials
Finding primary sources in library using catalog
Using bibliographies and periodical/newspaper indexes covering the time period
Using indexes to government documents
Searching primary sources on the web


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).

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.


1. Where to Find?
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?

The Library Collection Use the library online catalog, you can find: 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
  • Society of Hispanic Historical and Ancestral Research
  • 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 you to plan a more informed and efficient search.

    Examples of Reference Sources:
    • Specialized encyclopedias
      • Encyclopedia of Civil War
      • Latin America, history and culture : an encyclopedia for students
      • 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 and 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
      • A reference guide to Latin American history

  • 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.

    To search for jouranl articles, use appropriate databases listed in the database page from the Library web (/sites/default/files/library/databases.htm).

    For general history topics, you can use the following online databases to find articles:
    • America: History & Life
    • Historical Abstracts
    • JSTOR
    • Project Muse
    • Humanities Abstracts
    • Academic Search Premier (EBSCOHOST)
3. Types of Materials

Addresses Events Pictorial works
Autobiographies Eyewitness Personal narratives
Correspondences Interviews Sources
Diaries Journals Speeches
Documents Letters Transcript
Evidence Memoirs Writings
  Oral history  

When you conduct searches in the online library catalog, article databases, or on the web, you can combine the type of material with the keyword(s) of your topic.

  • Colonial period and writings

  • Pilgrims and documents

  • Plymouth Colony and sources

  • World War and narratives

  • New Deal and documents

  • Dust bowl and pictorial works

  • Scopes trial and transcript

  • Inaugural addresses 

4. Finding Primary Sources in Library Using Catalog
You can access the CSULA Online Library Catalog from the Library Web's main page at /sites/default/files/library _. 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. 

  • Searching by Subject
    In order to use the Catalog to find primary sources on a subject, you must first identify the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH). To determine the appropriate subject headings associated with your topic you can:
    • Look in the five red volumes of the Library of Congress Subject Headings book located next to the Reference Desk, 1st Floor, Library North
    • Look up the catalog record for a book that you already know about. Click on the subject displayed below the book status information, and do a redirect search.
    • Ask a librarn or library staff member at the reference desk.

    The LCSH for Colonial Period history is "United States History Colonial Period 1600-1775". You can use this subject heading to find library collection about Colonial Period history.

  • Searching by Keyword
    Keyword/subject searching tends to be more effective with the CSULA catalog. If you don't find results using subject search, try to do a keyword search. The general LC subheading for primary sources is "sources". However, you can append any of the keywords listed in the "Types of Materials" to specifically a search for primary source materials.

    Examples of Keyword searching:
    Colonial period and sources
    Colonial period and writings
  • 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. 

    • Search Steps: 

      • Select Doing Research --- Find books, etc. ---WorldCat

      • Conduct your search

        • e.g., Colonial Period [AND] diaries or diary or letters or letter
      • Find out libraries own the item you need:

        • Click on a title

        • Click on "Libraries that Own Item"

      • Check the catalog of the library (from Doing Research---Area libraries) that owns the item to find out the book status before you go there. Books can be borrowed from any local public libraries and selected college and university libraries free of charge (see Local Library Web Sites and Catalogs at /sites/default/files/library/locallibraries.htm) _

      • Request the item through InterLibrary Loan
        From the Library web home page, click on Services--Interlibrary Loan--Book request

5. Using Bibliographies or Periodical and Newspaper Indexes Covering the Time Period

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

  • Materials for a bibliography of the public archives of the thirteen original states, covering the colonial period and the state period to 1789
  • New Interpretations of American colonial history
  • The New-York weekly journal (microform)

6. Finding Pictorial Works

To find pictorial works on a particular event, you can use the following sources:

  • Library Databases: AccuNet/AP Multimedia, Curriculum Resource Center (CRC) / Facts on File, Academic Search Premier (EBSCOHost) images search
  • Web Sites: American Memory (
  • Search Engines: google image search, altavista image search,

7. 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).  

    • Government Resources on the Library Web

    • Government Information Services

    • Monthly Catalog of United States Government Publications
      In print (1885-1976), Ref Z 1223. A18 (1st. Fl. Library North)
      On the Web (1976-present), Marcive
      Cumulative Subject Index to the Monthly Catalog
      In print (1900-1971), Ref Z 1223. A183 (1st. Fl. Library North)

    • Infomine
      A collection of annotated and indexed links for government information

    • 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.

    • National Archives
      Covers materials such as presidential materials, congressional records, census records, treaties, etc.

8. Searching Primary Sources on the Web
Many Web sites contain excellent primary resources. The scope of coverage varies for country and time period. To find primary sources on the web, you need to use a search engine and utilize similar search terms you used searching the library catalog for library materials.

Examples of search terms:
Colonial Period primary sources (or sources)
                                                 Plymoth Colony and sources

To find a list of search engines to use, please check the Web Search Engines page at 

To find a list of selected primary sources web sites for United States history, please check the recommended web sites for history at /library/libfac/hist.htm.

Selected Primary Sources Web Sites

1) General Primary Sources 

    • 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 Notes: Travels in America 1750-1920
      American Notes: Travels in America, 1750-1920 comprises 253 published narratives by Americans and foreign visitors recounting their travels in the colonies and the United States and their observations and opinions about American peoples, places, and society from about 1750 to 1920. Also included is the thirty-two-volume set of manuscript sources entitled Early Western Travels, 1748-1846, published between 1904 and 1907 after diligent compilation by the distinguished historian and secretary of the Wisconsin Historical Society Reuben Gold Thwaites.

    • 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. 

    • Documenting the American South
      Digitized collection of more than 1,100 books and manuscripts documenting "Southern history, literature and culture from the colonial period through the first decades of the 20th century."

    • 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. 

    • The Pilgrims & Plymouth Colony, 1620
      A study guide prepared for teachers, students or anyone interested in learning more about pilgrims.

    • Plymouth Colony Records for Genealogists
      A section of

    • 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)  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.

3) 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.

4) 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.

5) Historical Maps



Created by Holly Yu
Reference Librarian and Liaison to the Department of History
University Library, CSULA