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Resources for American History: Primary Source Collections

This guide provides information on both primary and secondary resources useful for American History research.

What is a Primary Source?

Correspondence, diaries, memoires, interviews, account books, inventories, and other original documents, created at the time of an event or during the lifetime of an individual or institution, that can be used to understand people and events of the past, are considered primary source material.  Depending upon the project, newspaper and magazine articles, images, film, and so forth may also be considered primary source materials.

The University Libraries have primary source materials in Special Collections & Archives, with some of the materials scanned and available via Digital DU.

To the right are strategies for finding original, transcribed, reprinted, and surrogate versions of primary sources.  Tabs on this research guide lead to digital collections of primary sources we own. 

Strategies for Finding Primary Source Materials

The library catalog is a good place to start when searching for primary source materials such as correspondence, diaries, memoires, records, and other types of documents, either held in the library's Special Collections and Archives division, reprinted as books, or microform or digital surragates of the original.

Monographs written at the time of the event can make useful primary source material.

The terms, diaries, personal narratives, correspondence, interviews, sources, archives, manuscripts, and document* can be added to a keyword search, to locate primary sources in the library catalog, Prospector, and WorldCat. For example, if looking for primary source materials regarding Che Guevara, you can do a keyword search as follows:

        george washington diaries

        george washington correspondence


All but the last of the above terms are subheadings that appear frequently in Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH).

  • Diaries and personal narratives apply to published memoirs
  • Correspondence and interviews refer to collections of sources
    • None of these terms necessarily means that the source was published specifically as a primary source, though they all can be used as such.
  • Sources, applies to collections of materials, of whatever nature, that have been compiled specifically as anthologies of primary source materials.
    • These could include collections of correspondence, articles, excerpts from longer publications, or anything else that might be useful for study of the subject.
  • Archives and manuscripts are often used to designate collections of materials held in original manuscript format by the library.
  • Document*, truncated here to search for any word beginning with “document,” does not necessarily appear in LCSH. It is useful as a keyword, however, since compilations of primary source material, published as such, often have titles that include the terms “documents” or “documentary.”

Examples of LC Subject Headings with terms indicating primary source material underlined:

      • Washington, George, 1732-1799 – Archives
      • Indians of North America -- Wars -- 1866-1895 -- Personal narratives

      • African American Women -- Diaries
      • Vietnam War, 1961-1975 -- Sources

      • Adams, Abigail, 1744-1818 -- Correspondence

Read the introduction and/or preface, or look at the bibliographic citations for the individual transcriptions to discover where the documents consulted are kept.

A search in WorldCat and limited to "Archival Materials" will retrieve records for physical archives or archives that have been reproduced in some other format, such as microform. 


For additional sources to find archival materials, consult other boxes in this section.

When searching in databases for surrogate primary sources, determine what vocabulary was used to describe the event and search using those terms.


Primary Source Collections on North American History

Archives Unbound Collections

  • Archives Unbound: America in Protest: Records of Anti-Vietnam War Organizations, The Vietnam Veterans Against the War   Rating  
    The Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) started in 1967 with six Vietnam veterans marching for peace in New York City. The purpose of the organization was to give voice to the returning servicemen who opposed the on-going war in Southeast Asia. This collection consists of FBI reports dealing with every aspect of antiwar work carried out by the VVAW.
  • Archives Unbound: American Indian Correspondence: Presbyterian Historical Society Collection of Missionaries' Letters, 1833-1893   Rating  
    The American Indian Correspondence is a collection of almost 14,000 letters written by those who served as Presbyterian missionaries to the American Indians during the years from 1833 to 1893.
  • Archives Unbound: Black Economic Empowerment: The Negro Business League   Rating  
    Booker T. Washington, founder of the National Negro Business League, believed that solutions to the problem of racial discrimination were primarily economic, and that bringing African Americans into the middle class was the key. In 1900 he established the League "to promote the commercial and financial development of the Negro" and headed it until his death.
  • Archives Unbound: Federal Response to Radicalism in the 1960s   Rating  
    Contains over 85,000 digital page images reproducing FBI documentation of the internal organization, personnel, and activities of some of the most prominent American radical groups and their movements to change American government and society.
  • Archives Unbound: Federal Surveillance of African Americans, 1920-1984   Rating  
    Contains reproductions of hundreds of FBI files documenting the federal scrutiny, harassment, and prosecution to which black Americans of all political persuasions were subjected. The collection provides detailed coverage of: "Negro radicals" and their organizations; the FBI's infringement of First Amendment freedoms; and its preoccupation with black radicalism between 1920 and 1984.
  • Archives Unbound: Global Missions and Theology   Rating  
    his collection documents the broad range of Nineteenth Century religious missionary activities, practices and thought in the United States by reproducing pivotal personal narratives, organizational records, and biographies of the essential leaders, simple missionaries, and churches. This collection includes materials on missionary activities among Native Americans and African Americans, both slaves and freedmen.
  • Archives Unbound: In Response to the AIDS Crisis: Records of the National Commission on Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, 1983-1994   Rating  
    Briefing books, hearing and meeting transcripts, reports, and press clippings document the activities of the National Commission on Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome from 1983-1994.
  • Archives Unbound: James Meredith, J. Edgar Hoover, and the Integration of the University of Mississippi   Rating  
    This collection contains extensive FBI documentation on Meredith’s battle to enroll at The University of Mississippi in 1962 and white political and social backlash, including his correspondence with the NAACP and positive and negative letters he received from around the world during his ordeal.
  • Archives Unbound: JFK's Foreign Affairs and International Crises, 1961-1963   Rating  
    Originally microfilmed as JFK and Foreign Affairs, 1961-1963, this collection provides insights into President Kennedy’s views on foreign affairs, U.S. leadership of the "West," and various worldwide crises.
  • Archives Unbound: Literature, Culture and Society in Depression Era America: Archives of the Federal Writers’ Project   Rating  
    The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) was the most controversial and contentious program of the Work Projects Administration (WPA), an integral part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s "New Deal." This bold, imaginative and wide-ranging enterprise is the key to understanding literature, culture and society in America during the Depression era.
  • Archives Unbound: Phyllis Lyon, Del Martin and the Daughters of Bilitis   Rating  
    As outspoken lesbian organizers for civil rights, civil liberties, and human dignity whose personal relationship fueled decades of political activism, Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin created and helped shape the modern gay and feminist movements.
  • Archives Unbound: Price Control in the Courts: The U.S. Emergency Court of Appeals, 1941-1961   Rating  
    In the Emergency Price Control Act of 1942, Congress established a comprehensive system of administrative controls over prices, as a means of checking the inflation that accompanied America’s entry into World War II. The Act created a temporary Emergency Court of Appeals, staffed by federal judges from the district courts and courts of appeals, with exclusive jurisdiction to determine the validity of price control regulations.
  • Archives Unbound: The American Indian Movement and Native American Radicalism   Rating  
    ormed in 1968, the American Indian Movement (AIM) expanded from its roots in Minnesota and broadened its political agenda to include a searching analysis of the nature of social injustice in America. These FBI files provide detailed information on the evolution of AIM as an organization of social protest and the development of Native American radicalism.
  • Archives Unbound: The Black Liberation Army and the Program of Armed Struggle   Rating  
    The Black Liberation Army (BLA) was an underground, black nationalist-Marxist militant organization that operated from 1970 to 1981. Composed largely of former Black Panthers (BPP), the organization’s program was one of "armed struggle" and its stated goal was to "take up arms for the liberation and self-determination of black people in the United States." The BLA carried out a series of bombings, robberies (what participants termed "expropriations"), and prison breaks.
  • Archives Unbound: The Bush Presidency and Development and Debate Over Civil Rights Policy and Legislation   Rating  
    This collection contains materials on civil rights, the development of civil rights policy, and the debate over civil rights legislation during the administration of President George H.W. Bush and during his tenure as vice president. Contents of this collection includes memoranda, talking points, correspondence, legal briefs, transcripts, news summaries, draft legislation, statements of administration policy (SAP’s), case histories, legislative histories and more.
  • Archives Unbound: The Civil War in Words and Deeds   Rating  
    Individually and collectively, the publication of these regimental histories and personal narratives constitute a source of great historical value. These first-person accounts, compiled in the postwar period and early 20th Century period, chronicle the highs and lows of army life from 1861 through 1865.
  • Archives Unbound: The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990: Reduction of Acid Rain, Urban Air Pollution, and Environmental Policy   Rating  
    The 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments were a landmark effort to reduce air pollution through a variety of instruments including the use of a market-based system of trade-able pollution "permits" under its Title IV and Title V. This Archives Unbound collection consists of essential documents on the promulgation and implementation of the Clean Air Act Amendments (CAAA) of 1990 and other environmental issues including endangered species and protection of American wetlands.
  • Archives Unbound: The Savings and Loan Crisis: Loss of Public Trust and the Federal Bailout, 1989-1993   Rating  
    This publication consists of studies, analyses, testimony, talking points and news clippings which detail the origins of the S&L crisis and outlined solutions to the growing crisis in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In essence, this publication provides an analysis of the causes and political perspectives on the Savings and Loan Crisis—What lessons did we learn?
  • Archives Unbound: The War Department and Indian Affairs, 1800-1824   Rating  
    From 1789 until the Bureau of Indian Affairs was established in 1824, Indian affairs were under the direct control of the Secretary of War. This collection consists of the letters received by and letters sent to the War Department, including correspondence from Indian superintendents and agents, factors of trading posts, Territorial and State governors, military commanders, Indians, missionaries, treaty and other commissioners, Treasury Department officials, and more.
  • Archives Unbound: "We Were Prepared for the Possibility of Death:" Freedom Riders in the South, 1961   Rating  
    Freedom Riders were civil rights activists who rode interstate buses into the segregated South to test the United States Supreme Court decision in Boynton v. Virginia. Boynton had outlawed racial segregation in the restaurants and waiting rooms in terminals serving buses that crossed state lines.
  • Archives Unbound: Women’s Issues and Their Advocacy Within the White House, 1974-1977   Rating  
    This collection documents Patricia Lindh’s and Jeanne Holm’s liaison with women’s groups and their advocacy within the White House on issues of special interest to women. Includes material accumulated by presidential Counselor Anne Armstrong and Office of Women’s Programs Director Karen Keesling.