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HSS 300 - Progressive Reformers: Primary Sources

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What is a Primary Source?

Primary Source vs. Secondary Source

Primary source documents show direct, immediate or firsthand knowledge of a subject or event. 

Secondary sources are writings without direct knowledge of a topic or event. These include biographies, monographs, and general periodical articles. Secondary sources are written by people who did not witness or experience an event but have a great deal of knowledge about the topic. 

Scholars rely on primary sources to make arguments in secondary sources.

Primary Source Types

  • Autobiographies
  • Diaries/Journals
  • Letters
  • Speeches
  • Travel Accounts
  • Messages and Papers
  • Government Documents
  • Magazine/Newspaper Articles
  • Manuscripts
  • Photographs
  • Creative Works
  • Other Non-Text Materials

Finding Primary Sources

You can find primary sources for this topic in three places:

  1. Books: Many of the books in the stacks, eBooks available through the library catalog, and in Garver have primary sources in them. Look for words in the book's title like "a documentary history" or "sources." Also look for clues within the text like block quotes and distinct sections with a different author.
  2. Databases. Those listed below contain primary sources. Remember, not every item in these databases will be the RIGHT primary source for you. Try playing with search filters to make sure you are looking at sources from the right time period.
  3. Websites. Below are a few websites with primary sources. Make sure to note the difference between any introductory text and the primary source itself.

If you're not sure if you're looking at a primary source, just chat OWHL Answers for help!

Search the OWHL Catalog

             Primary Sources in the OWHL Catalog



Do a keyword search for your topic and include the words primary source in your search string. For example: when looking for primary sources about Thomas Jefferson you should type Thomas Jefferson primary source into the search box.

Finding Primary Sources in Databases

Primary Sources on the Web