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History Research Guide

Primary Sources: Introduction

Primary sources are evidence that date from the time period being studied, immediate to the events under investigation. There are many kinds of evidence, written, material, or visual, physical or electronic, and so on. For instance:

  • Letters or Correspondence
  • Diaries or Personal Narratives
  • Memoirs or Autobiography
  • Documents or Records or Papers (personal, business, government, administrative, etc.)
  • Interviews or Speeches
  • Laws or Treaties
  • Films or Videos or Photographs
  • Art (pictures, paintings, Illustrations, posters, drawings, designs, blueprints, etc.)
  • Music or Scores or Songs or Radio or Audio
  • Material Culture (coins, vehicles, ships, equipment, homes, furniture, clothing, etc.)
  • Publications from a past time (non-fiction, fiction, etc.)
  • etc.

Reading secondary sources carefully to mine the primary sources that scholars have already cited is also an excellent method of learning about primary sources in a particular historical field or those being used to answer certain historical questions. Using any of the terms above, or their synonyms, may aid in searching for primary sources to discover them through library catalogs, indexes, databases, websites, etc.

The usual subheading for primary sources in library catalogs is “sources”. Sample subject headings include:

France -- History -- Revolution, 1789-1799 -- Sources

Soviet Union -- History -- Revolution, 1917-1921 -- Sources

United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Sources


See the following for an overview on doing archival research:

Primary Sources: Africana Studies (includes African-American History)

Primary Sources: British History (England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales)

Primary Sources: European History - Medieval Europe

Primary Sources: European History - Modern Europe

Primary Sources: Latin American & Caribbean History

Primary Sources: U. S. History

Primary Sources: U. S. Civil Rights History (see also Africana Studies)

Primary Sources: U. S. Environmental History

Primary Sources: U. S. Urban History