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HIST 3989 - Senior Seminar : Finding Primary Sources

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 Collections @ 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. 

Archives for Individuals

Both American National Biography and Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, found under the "Biography and Genealogy" tab, list archives for individuals at the end of the essay on that individual.

Finding Archives via Google

To find archives and manuscript collections using Google, or another Web browser, type in the name of the person, event, or country, and combine with the words archives, or in the case of a country, "National Archives."

Sources to Locate Archives

The following a highly selective list sources for finding archival materials.

Guides to Manuscript and Archives Collections by Country

To identify guides by country, use the LC Subject Heading “Manuscripts -- Country -- Catalogs,” entering the relevant country name. For guides to manuscript collections on particular topics, use the subheadings “Manuscripts -- Catalogs” or “Sources -- Bibliography -- Catalogs.” For example, you might use the headings “Ireland -- History -- 16th century -- Manuscripts -- Catalogs” or “Brazil -- History -- Sources -- Bibliography -- Catalogs.” These guides can often give a good idea of the general utility of the records for a given project, but books can go out of date as collections are lost or damaged.

National Portrait Galleries

Images and Videos

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:

        che guevara diaries

        che guevara 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
      • Egypt -- History -- Intervention, 1956 -- Personal narratives, Egyptian
      • Guevara, Che, 1928-1967 -- Diaries
      • Turkey -- History -- Ottoman Empire, 1288-1918 -- Sources
      • Nomura, Kichisaburo, 1877-1964 -- 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.


Sources Consulted

Thanks to Michael Levine-Clark for allowing me to use his text about primary source research from his chapter, "Historical Research," in Research Within the Disciplines: Foundations for Library Reference and Library Instruction, Peggy Keeran et al *Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2007) 61-82.

Primary Source Databases

For additional primary source digital collections, click on the Databases on the library homepage...

...and the select the "All Database Types"  dropdown menu on the next screen to see all types of digital primary sources: