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WRIT 1733 - America - Americana: Primary Source Collections

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 George Washington, 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