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Historical Methods

What is a Primary Source?

A Primary Source is a item produced from the time you are researching.  It can be a photograph, a letter, government documents, and much more.  Looking at actual sources from a specific time helps to get the firsthand account of what was happening when it was happening.

For more in-depth guidance see the Primary Source Research guide.

Research Starting Points

Below are good starting points for finding primary sources on a wide range of topics.

Background Sources for Gaining Context

If you have a general topic and need background information, these reference databases have short articles that often include references to primary sources or to secondary sources that may lead to key primary sources.

Sources on a Specific Topic

If you have a specific topic in mind, you can also search in a search engine like Google for primary sources or digital collections on the topic (search examples: ("digital collections" "atomic bomb", "primary sources" "atomic bomb").

See the Research Tools page for a fuller list of recommended resources.

Primary Source Databases

Primary Sources Database Lists (Alphabetical/By Subject)

Note: Some primary source databases include a large number of subcollections. See Subcollections in Large Databases for details on the following databases: Accessible Archives, AM Explorer, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Gale Primary Sources, HIstory Vault, Nineteenth Century Collections Online, and ProQuest Primary Sources. 


General Primary Source Databases

(Cover a wide range of time periods and topics)


Time/Topic Specific


American History Primary Sources


World, Government, and Law Primary Sources

Newspaper Databases

Newspapers give insight into how an event or issue was reported on at a given historical moment.

Historical Newspapers


Current Newspapers

Advanced Google Searching

You can use Google!  One of the best ways to do that is by using the Advanced Search option.  This helps you choose specific websites or domains (.org.gov.edu) to find information better suited to your needs and look for primary source documentation.