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Library DIY

Self-help Guide for Navigating the Library

I am looking for primary sources.

In the arts and humanities a primary source is a source created during the historical period being studied. It documents the subject of study in some way. In the sciences "primary source" refers to an original research study.

This page focuses on primary sources for the arts and humanities. Examples of such primary sources include: 

  • Newspaper accounts
  • Letters, diaries, and scrapbooks
  • Government documents (research data, statistics, congressional transcripts, laws, etc)
  • Personal accounts, autobiographies, memoirs
  • Images and museum artifacts
  • Speeches
  • Data from scientific experiments
  • Oral histories

Other types of information may also be primary sources if they are analyzed for their historical or cultural significance. 


Below are top strategies for finding historical primary sources.

1. Search the library catalog.

1. Library Search includes primary source materials available in print and online. If you are looking for a specific item, search by title or author. 

Here are some recommended catalog search terms for locating primary sources. 

  • To find any kind of primary source: Sources or documents (examples: medieval AND sources, civil war AND documents, papal AND sources)
  • Personal accounts, autobiographies, or memoirs: Personal narratives or Autobiography or memoir  (examples: Pearl Harbor AND personal narratives, battle of the bulge AND memoir, autobiography AND world war II)
  • Letters: Correspondence or letters (examples: Civil War AND correspondence, French revolution AND letters)
  • Diaries: Diary (examples: Civil War AND diary, woman AND diary AND France)
  • Oral history: Interview or oral history or speeches (examples: Cold War AND interview, Japanese internment AND oral history, Malcolm X AND speeches)
  • Pamphlet: Pamphlet (examples: pamphlet AND chastity, rights AND women AND pamphlet)
  • Photographs or artwork: Pictorial works (examples: Chicago AND pictorial works, World's Fair AND pictorial works)

Try these words in a general keyword search, or to narrow your results limit the search to "subject."

Subject headings describe what an item is about. Click on the subject heading to find more books that have been tagged with the same heading. 



2. Search Google Books.

If your topic relates to an event that occurred before 1923, there are likely relevant primary sources available in the public domain. Google Books has digitized and made available many such books.

Search for a specific work or for a general topic. Note, however, that Google Books also lists resources that are only available to preview. Look for resources with publication dates before 1923 and with a Read Preview link. The Advanced Book Search allows you to limit to Full view only books.

Screenshot of Google Books Advanced Search