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Subject Guide for history

Primary Source Research Guide

Below are key resources and search tips for finding historical primary sources. More in-depth guidance and more extensive resource lists are also in the following resources: 

What is a Primary Source?

In history and the humanities a primary source is a item produced from the time you are researching. Examples include a photograph, a letter, a newspaper article, and government documents.  Looking at actual sources from a specific time helps you get a firsthand account of what was happening then.

Primary sources provide first-hand information about an event or phenomenon. In contrast, secondary sources offer second-hand information and analysis; they offer draw from primary sources. 

Video  "Primary vs. Secondary Sources" from HistoryVideos100 (Minnesota Historical Society):

Research Starting Points for Primary Sources

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.

Online Research Tools for Primary Sources on Most Topics

If you have a specific topic in mind, you use 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.

University Archives & Special Collections

University Archives & Special Collections (Campbell Library, 3rd floor) has primary sources related to the history of RU and the surrounding region. Learn more about their physical and online collections.

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

Primary Source Search Tips

Primary sources are available through many library and online resources. These search tips are helpful for locating primary sources in various online resources:

  • Identify search terms for the general area of interest (e.g., Civil War, Civil Rights Movement).
  • Limit the search to content, format, or source type (e.g., pamphlets, images, maps, newspapers, etc.)
  • Limit the publication year to the relevant time period.
  • Consider what search terms would have been used at the time that the source was created. (Often terms that would used at that time are different from what is used today.)

For example, in RU Library's Library Search (on the Campbell Library homepage), enter your search terms. From the results page limit the  "Content Type" and the "Publication Date."