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Archives and Special Collections: A Guide: Primary Sources

What is a Primary Source?

Primary Source vs. Secondary Source

A primary source is a document that shows direct, immediate or firsthand knowledge of a subject or event. It is a document written at the time or on the scene where an event occurred.

Secondary sources are those 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. Writers often use primary sources in their writing of secondary sources.

Primary Source Types

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

Research Tip

Always do a significant amount of reading in secondary sources before looking for primary sources.  Often times, information in secondary sources will lead you to a primary source.  For example, an article in a reference book might reference a speech or letter written by the person you are researching.

Primary Sources

Digital Public Library of America Cultural heritage materials from libraries, archives and museums across the United States.

National Archives and Records Administration U.S. federal agency responsible for federal records. Search multiple National Archives resources at once via the Online Public Access.

American Memory Historical documents and images at the Library of Congress

Library of Congress finding aids Search finding aids to collections held in all LC divisions

Making of America A digital library of primary sources in American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction. The collection currently contains about 10,000 books and 50,000 journal articles.

Hathi Trust A digital library that provides access to public domain and in copyright content from a variety of sources including Google, the Internet Archive, Microsoft, and major research institutions.

Internet Archive A digital library that provides free access to movies, audio, books and texts.

Europeana Explore Europe's cultural heritage.

ArchivesGrid OCLC database of manuscript finding aids from institutions around the country.

Atlas of Early PrintingMaps that depict the spread of the printing press in 15th-century Europe.

History of the Book, Harvard University This site, for Boston-area scholars interested in the history and future of the book, lists local events, conferences and online resources.

Map History The gateway to the history of cartography that has information about conferences, exhibits, map collections, images of early maps, a discussion list and teaching.

World History Sources, Center for History and New Media, George Mason University This site includes guides for analyzing primary sources (including material culture, images, maps, newspapers, music, personal papers and official records) and placing them in historical context as well as several case studies for teaching a particular type of primary source.

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 Newspaper Databases

ALWAYS use the date range feature when searching for primary source newspaper articles.  An article is only a primary source if it was published at the time in which an event took place.