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HIS 1200 American History: Locating Primary Sources

Guide to resources for the study of American life and culture.

What is a Primary Source?

A primary source is a record of events that are described or recorded by someone who either participated in or witnessed the events firsthand.

Examples include:

  • Newspaper accounts 
  • Letters
  • Diaries
  • Notebooks
  • Interviews
  • Propaganda
  • Maps
  • Creative Works
  • Clothing
  • Music

Finding Primary Sources in the Library Catalog

The best way to find primary sources in the library catalog is by using Library of Congress Subject Headings, which often include the following words:

  • sources
  • diaries
  • correspondence
  • interviews
  • personal narratives
  • speeches
  • papers of..

However these subject headings are not intuitive, therefore it is best that you do a Keyword search for your topic and one of the words above. Examples:

  • United States women diaries

Once you find a title of interest, open the record and link to similar sources by clicking on the appropriate subject heading.

Primary vs Secondary

Strategies for Locating a Primary Source

There are a few strategies you can use to locate primary source materials.

1. Search the library catalog

You can search the library catalog for your topic and include keywords such as diary, personal narrative, pamphlet, letters, maps, etc. that corresponds to the type of primary source material you think would be relevant.

2. Look through our primary source databases

We have specific databases that deal with primary source materials. You can browse our list of databases and read the descriptions to see if there are any relevant material.

3. You can check the references of secondary sources to see what primary sources they are citing.

Secondary sources often will cite primary sources to help build their argument. Take a look at what primary sources the author is using and search for the source in the library or contact a librarian if you need further help locating the source.

4. Check WorldCat

WorldCat allows you to search other libraries for primary sources. Using the Advanced Search, you can narrow your focus down to "Archival Material" under Format.