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HIST 83/184 - North America: Peoples & Lands (Wigmore)

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!

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. 

How to Find Primary Sources

Finding Primary Sources in OSCAR, the Library's Catalog

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.

Primary Source Repositories

The following sources aggregate digital collections from many, many libraries and archives which make them a one-stop-shop for primary sources spanning all topics and time periods.

Other Collections of Primary Sources

Some collections of digitized primary source material are highly curated based on a topic, historical event, time period, material type, or a combination of both. 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, but Europeana would be a great place to search.

American Antiquarian Society Historical Periodicals Collection

A collection of books, pamphlets, broadsides, newspapers, periodicals, music, and graphic arts material printed through 1876 in what is now the United States, as well as manuscripts and a collection of secondary texts, bibliographies, and digital resources related to all aspects of American history and culture before the twentieth century. 

Oxford African American Studies Center
Provides access to more than 7,500 articles focusing on African American history and culture. The articles come from major reference sources and are written by leading scholars in the field. Also includes primary sources, images, and maps.
Early American Imprints.  Series 1-Evans, 1639-1800
A fully searchable collection of virtually every book, pamphlet, and broadside published in America from 1639 to 1800, based on Charles Evans's American Bibliography.

Early American Imprints. Series 2-Shaw-Shoemaker, 1801-1819
A fully searchable collection of more than 36,000 books, pamphlets, and broadsides published in America between 1801 and 1819, based on Ralph R. Shaw's and Richard H. Shoemaker's American Bibliography.

The Making of America
The "Making of America" is a digital library of primary sources in American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction. It includes approximately 16,000 books and 50,000 journal articles published in the 19th century, searchable by subject.

Government Documents

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 GovInfo.gov.

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 sneuhaus@scu.edu. For more information about government documents, consult the research guide on congressional publications.

How to Find Primary Sources in Periodicals

Magazine Articles 

Magazine articles from the popular press are often used as primary sources in history research. Indexes, in print and online, are available to help you find articles on specific topics. The most useful resources to find magazine articles for history research are:

Opinions Archives
Provides access to the complete archives of 17 leading journals of opinion, including Dissent, Commentary, Harper's, National Review, The New Yorker, and The New Republic.

Readers' Guide Full-Text : This database provides indexing and abstracting of over 300 popular magazines from 1983 to date, with full text from over 150 publications back to 1994.
Readers' Guide Retrospective, 1890-1982 : Indexes more than 3 million articles from about 370 general interest, popular, news, and even a few scholarly, English language magazines and journals published between 1890 and 1982
Academic Search Premier : Provides access to magazine articles as well as scholarly journals in all disciplines, 1985-present.
American Periodical Series : A collection of full-text periodicals and primary source materials related to the American experience from the colonial days to 1900.
 

Newspaper Articles
If you have trouble connecting to any of the newspaper sources below, go to the list of databases on the library home page and select the one you want.

19th Century U.S. Newspapers
With digital facsimile images of both full pages and clipped articles for hundreds of 19th century U.S. newspapers and advanced searching capabilities, researchers will be able to research history in ways previously unavailable. For each issue, the newspaper is captured from cover-to-cover, providing access to every article, advertisement and illustration.

Chronicling America (from the Library of Congress)
Collection of historical newspapers from 1789 to 1924.  Searchable by state, language, and ethnicity.

New York Times Archives : Full text of The New York Times newspaper from 1851–2003. The full-text of more current articles is available via LexisNexis Academic.

Los Angeles times Archives: Full text of the Los Angeles Times newspaper from 1881 to 1987.

San Francisco Chronicle Archives:  Full text of the San Francisco Chronicle from 1869 to 1984

San Francisco Chronicle : The web version of the Chronicle provides the full text of the current issue, as well as archives going back to 1995. The archives are limited to staff written material.

Chicago Defender:  Full text of the Chicago Defender newspaper from 1910 to 1975

Washington Post Archives: Full Text of the Washington Post newspaper from 1877 to 1993

Hispanic American Newspapers
A database of hundreds of Hispanic American newspapers published between 1808-1980 from 22 states, many of which are from California, Texas, New Mexico, and New York. Many newspapers are bilingual.

Newspapers Source : Provides selected full text coverage for more than 240 newspapers and other sources. This collection includes cover-to-cover full text for USA Today, The Christian Science Monitor and The Times (London) and full text transcripts from Face the Nation, CBS Evening News with Dan Rather, 60 Minutes, O'Reilly Factor, Hannity & Colmes, National Public Radio, etc. Dates of coverage vary for individual titles, but usually not more than 5 or 6 years.

San Jose Mercury News : Full-text of the San Jose Mercury News from 1985 to the present.

California Newspapers Digital CollectionThe California Digital Newspaper Collection offers over 200,000 pages of California newspapers spanning the years 1849-191l:

Historical Newspapers Online (from Penn State)
Links to digitized collections of historical local newspapers from around the country.

Historical African American Newspapers
Links to hundreds of African American newspapers.  Coverage varies.  Quality of digitization varies as well.


Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection  (163 individual newspaper titles published in Colorado from 1859 to 1923)

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 1841-1902 : (a project of the Brooklyn Public Library)

Richmond Daily Dispatch 1860-1865 : (a project of the Institute of museum and library services)