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HIST 11A-12A: War & Society in Modern Age

A guide for anyone embarking on historical research, but specifically for students in Wigmore's HIST 11A-12A

What Are Primary Sources?

What Are Primary Sources?

"Primary sources are original records created at the time historical events occurred or well after events in the form of memoirs and oral histories. Primary sources may include letters, manuscripts, diaries, journals, newspapers, speeches, interviews, memoirs, documents produced by government agencies such as Congress or the Office of the President, photographs, audio recordings, moving pictures or video recordings, research data, and objects or artifacts such as works of art or ancient roads, buildings, tools, and weapons. These sources serve as the raw material to interpret the past, and when they are used along with previous interpretations by historians, they provide the resources necessary for historical research." (American Library Association, Reference and User Services, History Section)

Original primary source objects are kept by museums, libraries, archives, auction houses, and by private collectors. In the old days you would have to rely on a scholar who consulted those materials to publish them with discussion, or visit the archive or museum yourself. Nowadays many of these items have been photographed or scanned to provide access through digital collections.

You can use OSCAR and other Library catalogs to find books that have published reproductions of primary sources, and you can use online digital collections, repositories, and databases and access them electronically. You just know how to look and where to find the right stuff!

Activity #2: Primary Sources

Find a primary source image using keywords from your research topic by searching an online repository linked below, preferably DPLA. Download the image and then upload it to the Padlet.

Primary Sources in Books

Use OSCAR, the SCU Library Catalog, to find books that contain primary sources.

These sources often contain contextual information that helps you understand the primary source, and many times also contains essays and other academic secondary source material.

Primary Sources on specific topics are often collected and published as a monograph (a book devoted to one topic). An example of this would be a collection of letters transcribed into text from handwriting, edited, and then published in one book. Books on historic topics can also include primary sources in appendices.

To locate primary sources on your topic, an easy way is to search OSCAR, the library catalog, and to add to your search some keywords describing primary sources such as: letters or diaries, or documents, or sources. For example an OSCAR search using the terms gettysburg and letters would bring back over 20 results of print and ebooks that contain letters, including: Letters of a Civil War nurse: Cornelia Hancock, 1863-1865.

General Primary Source Digital Collections

Whether you call them digital libraries, digital archives, digital repositories, or digital collections like I do, they are databases of digitized primary sources that you can query from anywhere in the world. Some are aggregators that pull in results from lots of individual libraries, archives, and museums. Some are created and maintained online by specific institutions, for example we have a Santa Clara University Digital Collections.

When searching these more broad general sources, you may need to use more keywords to describe your topic, war, time period, actors, etc.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of general digital collections.

War and Conflict Primary Source Collections

Some collections of digitized primary source material are highly curated based on a topic, historical event, time period, material type, collector's focus, or a combination of more than one of these. These can be great sources if you find the right digital collection for your topic.

For example, if you are researching the Spanish Civil War, you wouldn't want to use the Oxford African American Studies Center—even DPLA could be too broad. A very good digital library to use would be the Spanish Civil War Collection coming from UC San Diego.

If you can't find an appropriate repository from the list below, do a google search for the name of your war or conflict with the term "digital library" or "digital collection."

Newspaper and Magazine Archives

Primary Sources on the Web

Primary Sources on the Web

Many primary sources have been digitized and made available on the web. You have to be careful, though, because often the source of the document is not provided -- especially if you found it through a Google search. You need to evaluate each web site carefully to determine if it is reliable. Primary sources available from university/college archives or government archives are the best.

Below are some primary source repositories that aggregate the digital collections of many libraries and archives, or provide many digital collections on different topics and themes through one institution's database. You will use different search strategies based on the scope of each repository or digital collection database you search.

Additionally, you can just add the words "primary sources" to your search to locate such documents on the Internet, but this is when you'll have to be very discerning. 

More Primary Source Collections

Some of these are available through the SCU Library subscription, and some are open on the web.

Government Documents as Primary Sources

There is a great deal of historical information in government documents and you often need them as primary sources for your research. You can locate government documents in OSCAR, or, most easily, at

The following database and online resources are also useful to locate government documents:
ProQuest Congressionnal Publications
Congressional Publications; bills, laws and regulations; legislative histories; hearings and more.

If you have trouble locating government documents on your topic, please consult Sophia Neuhaus, Government Documents librarian, at For more information about government documents, consult the research guide on congressional publications.