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 periodical and newspaper indexes covering the time period
Identifying popular fiction, movies, and plays from 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 your research, and 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 Mexico History, you can use the following online databases to find articles:
    • Hispanic American Periodicals Index (HAPI)
    • Chicano Database
    • Historical Abstracts
    • JSTOR
    • Ethnic NewsWatch
    • Handbook of Latin American Studies
    • Academic Search Premier (EBSCOHOST)
3. Type of Materials

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

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

  • Great depression and interviews

  • Mexican revolution and sources

  • World War and narratives

  • New Deal and documents

  • Dust bowl and pictorial works

  • Scopes trial and transcripts

  • 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 informatin, and do a redirect search.
    • Ask a librarn or library staff member at the reference desk.

    The LCSH for the Mexican Revolution is "Mexico-History-Revolution, 1910-1920". You can use this subject heading to find library collection in Mexican revolution.

  • 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 "Type of Materials" to specifically search for primary source materials.

    Examples of Keyword searching:
    Latin America history sources
    Mexican revolution documents
    Mexico revolution sources
  • 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

      • Find out libraries own the item you need:

        • Click on a title

        • Click on "Libraries that Own Item"

      • Check the library catalog that owns the item to find out the book status (from Doing Research---Area libraries), and books can be borrowed from any local public libraries and selected college and university libraries (see Partner libraries at /sites/default/files/library/guides/partners.htm _ for detail) _

      • Request the item through InterLibrary Loan (/sites/default/files/library/ill3.htm) _

5. 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:  
         Mexican history--bibliography  
         Sample Title: The Mexican Revolution : an annotated guide to recent scholarship  

6.  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

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

    • 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:
Latin American history primary sources
                                                 Mexican Revolution sources

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

We have found that primary resources in Latin American history are pertinent to Mexican history and the Mexican Revolution.

List of Latin American Studies Web Sites

    • The Handbook of Latin American Studies
      Provided by the Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress, the Handbook is one of the most important tools for scholarly research on Latin America. It provides abstracts and complete bibliographic information for published materials from and about Latin America on a wide range of topics in the humanities and social sciences and covers more than 60 years of scholarly literature in Latin American studies.

    • Internet Resources for Latin America
      Offers access to many information resources for Latin American studies.

    • Latin American Election Statistics: A Guide to Sources
      Created by Karen Lindvall-Larson (University of California--San Diego), this web site provides a chronology of elections since independence at the municipal, state and federal levels in the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America. Includes lists of sources for all statistics and other information provided on the web.

    • Latin American and Caribbean Government Documents Project
      An experimental project to organize, describe and link to Latin American official documents available on the internet. Includes national level statistical, executive, legislative, and judicial sources, and several categories of "subnational" documents.

    • Latin American Network Information Center (LANIC)
      The site provides enormous anount of information and links conveniently organized by courntires and subjects. It also lists databases, newspapers, library catalogs, and more for Latin American Studies.

    • Latin American Studies Association
      The Latin American Studies Association (LASA) is the largest professional Association in the world for individuals and institutions engaged in the study of Latin America. Among other useful information, this web site offers information on research, study, and web links pertaining to Latin American Studies.

    • Latin American Subject Resources
      Directory includes access to bookstores, embassies, online publications, travel information and more.

    • Latin Americanist Research Resources Pilot Project
      Access to tables of contents of several hundred journals from Mexico and Argentina. Allows academic researchers to identify and locate articles available via interlibrary loan from over 40 research libraries in the US.

    • LADARK: Latin America Development Electronic Archive
      Created by the Program in Comparative International Development in the Dept. of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University, LADARK contains datasets, working papers, bibliographies, course syllabi, and announcements useful to scholars researching Latin American development.

    • Political Database of the Americas
      The Political Database of the Americas is a non-governmental Internet-based project that provides reference materials, primary documents, comparative studies and statistical data for countries in the Western Hemisphere.

    • United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC)
      ECLAC, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, is one of five regional commissions of the United Nations, each of which is concerned with assisting and promoting economic and social development in a major region of the world. Created in 1948, ECLAC currently serves 33 Governments from the Latin America and the Caribbean region, together with several nations of North America and Europe which maintain historical, cultural and economic ties with the region. The web site provides information on publication, research and statistics among other useful information.

Primary Source List for the Mexican Revolution (from Our Lady of the Lake University)

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