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HIST 27/127: Public and Digital History (Gudgeirsson)

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)

There are many ways to find primary sources for historical research.

  • Books can contain primary sources or be totally composed of primary sources
  • Archives contain primary sources, and many archives have digital collections to make this easier to access
  • Databases the library subscribes to may be totally or partially populated with primary sources


You will find the terms digital collections, digital archives, digital libraries, online repositories, and online exhibits are used interchangeably to describe the portal that contains an institution's digitized content. Some sites, like the Digital Public Library of America and Calisphere, aggregate these digitized items into one portal.

Use OSCAR to Find Primary Sources

Using OSCAR to search for primary sources essentially means searching for books that contain reproduced or transcribed primary sources. This is advantageous because the sources come with an editorial apparatus that puts the sources in context, and often gets around the handwriting problem by transcribing and printing the content of handwritten documents.

The following keywords should be utilized for this:

correspondence, papers, speeches, memoirs, personal narratives, documents, sourcebook, or sources

Combine the keywords representing the topic with keywords representing primary sources, such as

  • correspondence, letters, papers, speeches, memoirs, personal narratives, documents, sourcebook, or sources
  • Examples:
    • immigration korea narratives
    • suicide ethics sources
    • (sources or "personal narratives" or letters or correspondence) and haiti
  • If you're feeling spiffy, go for an advanced search and play around with searching some words in the title and some words in the subject

(sources or "personal narratives" or correspondence) in first box with title selected as the field and haiti in the second box with subject selected as the field

Use SCU Library Databases for Primary Sources

Over a Dozen Primary Source Databases Through the SCU Library

Under the Databases tab on the SCU Library website, you can search by type or vendor. This is a way to look at all the databases that contain primary source materials available through the library. From there you can pick a database that provides materials from your time period, geographic focus, or other topic as appropriate.

Once you enter into the list of these primary source databases, select one that is appropriate to your topic.

Some examples:

Some primary source repositories are a subscription that the SCU Library pays for on your behalf. Other primary source repositories are open access and free on the open web.

Below is a list of newspaper databases you can access through SCU Library subscriptions, in addition to those you found at the link above.

Below that is a list of open access repositories that a librarian has curated for you.

Digitized Historic Newspapers

Individual Newspaper Databases

Databases containing multiple newspapers (sometimes hundreds)

Open Access Digital Repositories

Government Documents

Government publications are a rich source of primary documents. 

Use this database to find congressional publications, bills, laws and regulations, hearings, and government reports.  

Here's an example of the kind of documents you can find in the database:

Searching for Primary Sources on Google

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 and appropriate credit is not given for the digital object. 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.

On this guide 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.

TIPS for efficiently searching Google for primary sources:

You can find primary sources through a Google search attaching words or phrases ("primary sources" or documents) to a search:

navajo code talkers "primary sources"

navajo code talkers documents


The various museums and collections that comprise the Smithsonian Institution, the National Archives, and the Library of Congress have created some marvelous internet tools, exhibitions, collections and databases. A quick way to "get in" is to construct complex Boolean search statements to use in a Google search following these three patterns:

word (or phrase enclosed in " ")

word (or phrase enclosed in " ")

word (or phrase enclosed in " ")

For example, if I wanted to see what was available about the Navajo code talkers during World War II, remembering that "less is often better searching," I would do these three separate searches in Google:

"code talkers"

"code talkers"

"code talkers"

and I would find some incredible primary resources!