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HIST 101: Historical Writing


"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)

How to Analyze a Primary Source

Here's a helpful guide (from Carleton College) to help you understand and interpret your primary sources:

How to Analyze a Primary Source

Primary Sources in OSCAR and other library catalogs . . .

Primary sources on specific topics are  often collected  and published as monographs (collection of letters for example). A book can also include primary sources in appendices.  To locate primary sources in OSCAR and other library catalogs, like LINK+ or WorldCat, try appending the following words/phrases to a topical/keyword search:


"primary sources" (For example: "cold war" and "primary sources")

letters (For example: pioneer* and women and letters)

documents (For example: espionage documents)

diary/diaries (For example: pioneer* and women and diar*)

"personal narratives" (For example: holocaust and "personal narratives")

Newspapers & Magazines in Subscription Databases

The two groups of databases below are all ways to find magazine and newspaper articles that could constitute PRIMARY sources depending on your specific topic. The first group are individual titles. The second group are collections of various sorts. These are subscription databases. See the next section of this guide for information about additional resources available over the Internet. 


Individual Titles




Some buried magazine & newspaper treasure on the internet . . .

Huge backfiles of an amazing array of old magazines are available through Google Books. You can see a list here:

The issue you see in that list appears to be the most recent issue available, so, to see how far back they go and more easily browse by date, click on About this magazine under the magazine picture. It's a very odd mixture of thing, but there's some buried treasure along with the curiosities (Weekly World News!!). Here's a few titles worth getting excited about & the year of the earliest issue:  Billboard (1942),  Boy's Life (1911), Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (1945), The Crisis (1911), Ebony (1959), Jet (1951), Life (1936)Popular Science (1910), Yoga Journal (1975).

Another strategy for finding digitized anything about a specific place is to look at the website for the public library or a university library in the area of interest.

You can thank genealogy researchers for two other potentially very valuable resources for collections of digitized newspapers -- from you get and then there is Newspaper Archive. In both cases, you can sign up to get free access for 7 days in each case, so, plan accordingly!

Below are some additional projects around newspapers.


A good way to find newspaper digitization projects is to do a Google search formatted like this:

[name of a state] newspaper archives

as in:

virginia newspaper archives


Uniquely California!

Thank UC Riverside for the California Digital Newspaper Collection. There are real jewels in here. Best way to find what is available is to BROWSE by Date or County. 

Television News

Many Americans watched one or more news programs on television regularly over the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st. You can access many of these broadcasts through the Vanderbilt Television News Archive. The Archive has been recording, preserving and providing access to television news broadcasts of the national networks since August 5, 1968. The core collection includes evening news from ABC, CBS, and NBC (since 1968), an hour per day of CNN (since 1995) and Fox News (since 2004).

SCU is not a sponsoring member of the Archive, so, accessing the videos is a multi-step process. You can search the Archive and compile a list of news stories, but to actually view the videos, you need to borrow clips through their loan service. It can take up to 5 days for such a loan to be processed. The steps for doing this will be found HERE.

Primary Source Subscription Databases

These databases are collections of primary sources in a wide, wide, wide variety of formats! They are not easy to use and are best used by carefully and thoughtfully browsing. It can be helpful to have names of persons and places to use in searching them as well.

Finding Amazing Archives of Primary Sources

Start your search for buried digitized treasure (print, video, audio, etc.) on the internet at the Digital Public Library of America, a truly noble effort to "Make millions of materials from libraries, archives, museums, and other cultural institutions across the country available to all in a one-stop discovery experience."


In reading the fine print and the footnotes and references in your secondary sources, you may get names of organizations and resources that are housing primary sources. These kinds of resources are constantly being digitized and made available over the internet. So, you can use Google to see what is available from any particular group.

Another great way to identify digitized primary sources with a particular geographic focus is to the visit the website of the main public library in that area. Local university libraries will also often have research guides that will identify what can end up being real treasure troves of digitized information.


TIPS for efficiently searching Google:

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!


SPECIAL NOTE: If your research has a California focus, you have a truly unique resource available to you in the Online Archive of California which includes primary source collections from over 200 institutions, libraries, archives, historical societies, museums, including the Bancroft Library at Berkeley. It's growing all the time, too!

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. Our U.S. federal document collection is largely limited to material published since 1964 although we have indexes identifying earlier material which may be available in other Bay Area libraries. California State documents date from 1952. Many of the government documents are cataloged in OSCAR and have been placed in the ARS. Retrieving materials from the ARS is a somewhat complex process and you will need the assistance of staff at the information or circulation desk to assist you.

For more information about government documents, consult the research guide on congressional publications.

Researching Santa Clara University

If your topic relates to the history of Santa Clara University or the Santa Clara Mission:

1. Make an appointment with Kelci Baughman McDowell in Archives & Special Collections. She can help you locate archival materials on your topic.

2. Check out the student newspaper, The Santa Clara, which was recently digitized.