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Historical Research, Methods and Writing: Primary Sources

A guide to locating appropriate sources for students in HIST2303: Historical Research, Methods and Writing

Primary Sources

A primary source is usually a document, artifact or other record created by participants or observers in an event.

Examples include, but are not limited to:

  • contemporary (to the event) newspaper or magazine accounts
  • diaries, memoirs, or autobiographies
  • correspondence/letters
  • interviews/oral histories
  • correspondence/letters
  • speeches
  • court proceedings
  • minutes of congressional hearings or another governmental body's hearings
  • government reports
  • government/organizational archives
  • manuscripts (the papers of an individual or family)
  • diplomas/certificates
  • institutional records
  • photographs

Some primary sources, such as autobiographies, are easily found doing a simple search in your library catalog.  However, this usually isn't the case.

An excellent place to identify primary sources is in the bibliography of a quality secondary source on your topic.  Some will even have a separate bibliography just for primary sources.  With a good citation, you may find these in the OCCC Catalog or WorldCat.

When searching library catalogs, searching your subject along with primary source descriptor is often useful.  For example, try: 

  • slavery AND diaries
  • gettysburg AND papers
  • internment camps AND interviews

Some databases do NOT require the "AND" limiter.  Therefore, also try searching like this:

  • slavery diaries
  • gettysburg papers
  • internment camps interviews

Other descriptors include:

  • archival materials
  • correspondence
  • manuscripts
  • papers
  • personal narratives
  • sources

Newspaper accounts written during or shortly after an event has happened may be considered primary sources.  

Proquest Historical Newspapers is a database offering full-text coverage of the following newspapers: 

  • Christian Science Monitor (1908-2001)
  • Los Angles Times (1881-1991)
  • New York Times (1851-2011)
  • Wall Street Journal (1889-1997)
  • Washington Post (1877-1998)

When searching the Proquest database, it is recommended that in addition to searching by a subject keyword term, you also narrow by date.  In order to be a primary source, the date should be close to the date of the event you are researching.

                                             Screen Shot of Date Range function in Proquest

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