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History Research Guide

What are Primary Sources in History
Primary sources are the pieces of evidence that historians analyze and interpret to support their historical arguments.

Depending on your topic, almost any kind of material can be used as a primary source as long as it was created during the time period that you are researching or was created by someone who participated, as in the case of oral histories or memoirs.

word cloud of primary source examples in different colors and sizes 


Letters, Diaries, Scientific Data, Interviews, Photographs, Maps, Videos, Manuscripts, Newspapers, Speeches, Oral Histories, Artifacts, Government Documents, Art, Ephemera, Broadsides, Memoirs, Songs, and More!

How to Access Primary Sources
Primary sources are shared or made available in three main ways:

  1. Original items, such as diaries, artifacts, etc., are held in archives, museums, libraries, and private collections.
  2. Digitized versions of original sources are provided online by institutions and commercial vendors.
  3. Published collections are available from libraries, in the form of documentary sourcebooks, anthologies, critical editions, and microfilmed document collections to name a few.

Using Original Materials
To work with original materials, you'll need to visit in person.

  • Identify an institution that has a collection(s) related to your topic. Try an internet search or look for digitized collections to see who created them.
  • Search their library catalog for items or collections. For more details, you may need to consult a finding aid. Finding aids are documents which inventory and describe what a collection includes and how it is organized.
    Here is a sample finding aid for the Luther J. Battiste, III Papers from South Carolina Political Collections.
  • Consult with the archivist or curator at that institution. Be as clear and specific as possible about your research and what you're seeking.

Searching Digitized Materials
Identify relevant online databases from the library or search in free online repositories.

Finding Published Collections
Before digitization, accessing published document collections from libraries was a key way to use primary materials held in distant locations without needing to travel. It is often still the easiest way to find reproductions, transcriptions, and translations of very old texts or texts in a foreign language.

Other Subject or Keyword terms to identify books with primary materials:

anecdotes interviews
archives manuscripts
biography notebooks
caricatures and cartoons personal narratives
case studies pictorial works
correspondence public opinion
description and travel songs and music
diaries sources
documentary films speeches
documentary photography statistics