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 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. 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 Latin American history is "Latin America-History". You can use this subject heading to find library collection in Latin American 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 "Type of Materials" to specifically search for primary source materials.

    Examples of Keyword searching:
    Latin America history sources
    Mexican revolution documents
  • 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:  
         Latin America history--bibliography  
         Sample Title: Latin American history since 1825 

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 

Selected Primary Sources Web Sites


    • African American Biographical Database is an electronic collection of biographical information on African Americans from 1790-1950. It includes photographs and illustrations for African Americans, from the famous to the everyday person. The database also includes profiles and full-text sketches providing both biographical detail and illuminating narratives chronicling the lives of Black Americans.
    • AMDOCS: Documents for the Study of American History comprises a list of documents for the study of American history. It covers documents from 15th century to present.

    • American Colonist's Library: Primary Source Documents Pertaining to Early American History is an invaluable collection of historical works which contributed to the formation of American politics, culture, and ideals. Its massive collection of the literature and documents are most relevant to the colonists' lives in America.
    • American Memory consists of collections of primary sources and archival materials relating to American culture and history.  The site offers more than 5 million items from more than 90 historical collections including African American, Civil War, conservation movement, continental congress, farm security administration, architectural history, early motion pictures, woman suffrage, portraits of the presidents and first ladies, and more. 
    • The Avalon Projet Historical Documents contain digital documents relevant to the fields of Law, History, Economics, Politics, Diplomacy and Government. It is a project at Yale Law School.
    • California Heritage Digital Image Collection is an online archive of more than 30,000 images illustrating California's history and culture, from the collections of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Selected from nearly two hundred individual collections, this unique resource uses the latest online archiving techniques to highlight the rich themes of California's history. The Collection is part of the Online Archive of California, a compilation of finding aids, or guides, to archival collections at more than 30 institutions.
    • Lives, the Biography Resource is an extensive, annotated collections of links to biographical resources, primary biographical source material such as images, diaries, memoirs, correspondence, interviews, oral histories, etc., and good biographical dictionaries. 

    • Making of America  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.
    • North America Map Archive created by the University of Oregon contains interactive maps which show changes over time. The map collection covers maps from Territorial Expansion of the United States 1783-1898 to slavey through 1860. It requires Shockwave Plug-in to view.

    • Supreme Court Decisions on Lexis/NexisFrom the Library Web's Database page, select Lexis / Nexis. It includes 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.

    • United States Historical Census Data contains census information about  people and economy of the U.S. for each state and county from 1790 to 1960.

    Libraries / Archives / Repositories

    • Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States 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 (NARA) is an independent Federal agency, is America's national recordkeeper. It houses captured German records, census records, Charters of Freedom, Congressional Records, court records, Federal Regulations, genealogy, government employment records, laws military records, presidential materials, treaties, United States Code, etc.

    • Online Archive of California is a statewide digital resource that integrates into a single, searchable database, finding aids to and digital facsimiles of the contents of primary resource collections throughout California.
    • Repositories of Primary Sources list over 4600 websites 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. 


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