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Primary Source Research

Identifying Primary Sources

  • Consult the bibliography, notes, and acknowledgments in a recent secondary work on the subject that interests you. Does the writer tell you where the primary sources can be found?
  • The reference databases Credo Reference and Gale Virtual Reference Library have biographies that often include helpful references to primary sources or to secondary sources that may lead to key primary sources.
  • Can you identify an important person who was involved in the events you are studying? Look in a reference databases (like those mentioned in the previous bullet) for an article on the person. If you still haven't found that person's papers, search Worldcat for that person as an Author. You will find both published and unpublished material by that person.
  • Can you identify an organization that was involved in the events you are studying? Search Worldcat for that organization as an Author.
  • Google your topic, using words like "papers," "archives," or "digital collections" as part of your search.
  • Search resources like HathiTrust and ArchiveGrid for a collections from libraries and museums across the globe. Some materials will be available online; others are only available on site.

Credit: Text in this box is adapted from Princeton University Libraries'  Primary Sources guide, created by Steven Knowlton and Elizabeth Bennett.

General 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) and, if relevant, to the desired material type (e.g., diaries, correspondences).
  • 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."

Searching Other Libraries & Archives: Print and Online Guides

Once you have identified an archive or library with relevant materials, locate a guide or inventory of the collection(s). (Note: Though more and more archives have web sites and online catalogs, in some cases you will need to consult a printed guide.)

Below are several national archives and libraries.

United States

Canada

Europe (General)

United Kingdom

Ireland


Credit: Text in this box is adapted from Princeton University Libraries'  Primary Sources guide, created by Steven Knowlton and Elizabeth Bennett.