Skip to Main Content

Research Without Pain: 2c. Find Primary Sources

Research can be fun if you follow these simple steps.

Quick Links

Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources

When gathering information, it is essential to identify if you are using a Primary, Secondary, or Tertiary source. By doing so, you will be able recognize if the author is reporting on his/her own first hand experiences, or relying on the views of others.  Most history research at PA will require you to use primary sources.

Definitions Examples
A primary source is a first person account by someone who experienced or witnessed an event. This original document has not been previously published or interpreted by anyone else.
  • First person account of an event
  • First publication of a scientific study
  • Speech or lecture
  • Original artwork
  • Handwritten manuscript
  • Letters between two people
  • A diary
  • Historical documents, e.g. Bill of Rights
A secondary source is one step removed from the primary original source. The author is reexamining, interpreting and forming conclusions based on the information that is conveyed in the primary source.
  • Newspaper reporting on a scientific study
  • Review of a music CD or art show
  • Biography
A tertiary source is further removed from primary source. It leads the researcher to a secondary source, rather than to the primary source.
  •  Bibliography
  • Index to articles
  • Library catalog











What is a Primary Source?

How to find a Primary Source

  1. Books can be a good source of Primary Source Materials.  Many of the books in the OWHL catalog that include primary sources have the phrase "contains primary source materials" in the record.  Try adding that phrase to your search terms.
  2. The e-resources purchased by the OWHL contain primary source materials.  Many databases allow you to limit results by source type (ie., "diary") and other products are "resource centers", which bring together primary sources associated with specific topics.  Examples are American History Online, and Encyclopedia Brittanica.
  3. Historical Newspapers often contain contemporaneous newspaper accounts, which can be primary sources.  Try America's Historical Newspapers Series I 1690-1876.
  4. The Internet can be a good source if you are looking for a specific speech or piece of legislation.  Use the name of the speech, as a phrase, as your search term.

Search Google Scholar

Google Scholar provides an easy way to search for scholarly literature across many disciplines and resources.

Google Scholar Search