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Primary Sources

Students and researchers now have greater access to primary source materials for historical research than ever before. Users of primary sources have always needed to examine their sources critically, but now with the proliferation of electronic resources from a wide variety of web site producers, evaluation is more important than ever before. Users of web resources must now consider the authenticity of documents as well as what person or organization is the internet provider.  

What are primary sources?

Primary sources are original records created at the time historical events occurred or well after events in the form of memoirs and oral histories. Primary sources may include:
  • letters
  • manuscripts
  • diaries
  • journals
  • contemporaneous newspaper articles
  • speeches
  • interviews
  • pamphlets
  • government documents
  • photographs
  • audio recordings
  • moving pictures or video recordings
  • research data
  • objects or artifacts such as works of art or ancient roads, buildings, tools, and weapons
  • and other other documents of the time.

Finding Primary Resources: Databases which contain primary source materials

Hint: Search using keywords then narrow your results to source type:"primary source"


Search EBSCO


Finding Primary Resources: On the Web

1. Consult major collections of primary sources
The following reputable sites link to thousands of primary sources.

2.Browse a subject directory linking to primary sources
Subject directories are useful when you are interested in seeing a broad variety of sources on your topic. Some subject directories include annotations and evaluations of sites. Useful subject directories for history include:

3. Use a search engine
Search engines are useful when you are researching a narrow topic or trying to locate a specific document. When searching, use specific terms rather than broad terms. For example search for the “emancipation proclamation” not just “slavery,” search for the “battle of chancellorsville” not “civil war.”
4. Finding photographs and other non-text sources
Going to a major collection of photographs is the best way to find a historic image. Also, use a search engine to try a topic search, such “Eiffel Tower” or “Chingis Khan” or “Van Gogh and wheat fields” to find photos, drawings or reproductions of paintings. Some major collections include:
Evaluating Primary Source Web Sites
Before relying on the information provided by a website, examine and understand the purpose of the website. While the purpose might not affect the accuracy of the primary source material it contains, it might indicate that the material has been altered or manipulated in some way to change or influence its meaning. Sometimes sites use primary source material to persuade the reader to a particular point of view, distorting the contents in obvious or subtle ways. Also, sites can use primary source material haphazardly, without appropriately choosing, inspecting, or citing the work.

In general, look for websites with a non-biased, balanced approach to presenting sources. Websites produced by educational or governmental institution often are more reliable than personal websites, but government sites may be subject to propaganda.

The C.R.A.P. Test we use for websites in general can easily be adapted to evaluate websites with primary sources.

C. Currency will refer to the website's currency, not the age of the primary source ;}
R. Reliability will focus on where the author got the primary source document/image. The best sites clearly state the source of the original material.
A. Authority of Author/Organization behind the website (not the author of the primary resource)

Citing Primary Sources
It is important to provide complete information about your primary source whether found in a printed source or online. Below are two widely used citation generators.


Adapted from the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) of the American Library Association.

updated by Lisa Wright- March 19, 2015