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Finding Primary Sources in History


Reynolds Libraries can help you find primary sources for your history class assignments. In this guide you will find some helpful videos, links to primary source library databases and getting started instructions for searching these databases.

What are Primary Sources?

"Primary sources are materials produced by people or groups directly involved in the event or topic under consideration, either as participants or as witnesses." (Quoted from: A Pocket Guide to Writing History, 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2007)

Examples of primary sources, both print and online, include:

  • Official documents, reports and publications
  • Letters, diaries, memoirs, or published writings
  • Cartoons and advertisements
  • Newspaper or magazine articles written at the time of the event
  • Speeches
  • Autobiographies
  • Statistical data
  • Oral or transcribed interviews
  • Artifacts & realia
  • Maps
  • Audio & Visual Materials - Photographs, film & video, digitized collections, sound recordings

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Primary Sources:

  • Primary sources provide first hand accounts of experiences or events.
  • Original documents or artifacts were created at or near the time an event occurred.
  • The source can be in its original form or a reproduction, whether it be a written work or artifact.
  • Written works can include: interviews, speeches, questionnaires, letters, diaries, manuscripts and memoirs.
  • Sources may be found in book, periodicals, databases or the open web.

Where to Find:

Secondary Sources:

  • Secondary sources provide second hand accounts of experiences or events.
  • Materials that have been analyzed, interpreted or reported by people who do not have firsthand knowledge of an event.
  • Sources may be found in books, periodicals, databases or the open web.

Where to Find:

Finding Primary Sources in American History

Learn about the differences between primary sources versus secondary sources; how to find primary source databases at Reynolds Libraries; and best bet primary source databases in history.