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Primary Sources: Home

How to identify, find and use primary sources.

What are Primary Documents?

PRIMARY DOCUMENTS were either created during the time period being studied or were created at a later date by a participant in the events being studied (as in the case of memoirs).  They reflect the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer.  Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to what actually happened during an historical event or time period. Some examples of primary sources include:

  • Diaries, journals, speeches, interviews, letters, memos, manuscripts 
  • Memoirs or autobiographies
  • Record of or Information collected by government agencies. 
    • For Example, births, deaths, marriages, permits, census data all document conditions in the society
  • Record of organizatons. Their minutes, reports, correspondence
  • Published materials (books, magazine and journal articles, newspaper articles) written at the time about a particular event.
    • Accounts by particpants, or written by jounalists or other observers. Important to distinguish between material written at the time of an event  versus material written as historical analysis.
  • Photographs, audio recordings, and moving pictures or video recordings
  • Materials that document the attitudes and poplular thought of a historical time period.
    • Sources include: public opinion polls taken at the time - ideas and images conveyed in the mass media, literature, film, popular fiction.
  • Research data 
    • Such as anthroplogical field notes, the results of scientific experiments, and the other scholarly activity of the time. 
  • Artifacts of all kinds: objects, buildings, furniture, clothing, toys                                                                           Source: U.C. Berkeley Library

A SECONDARY SOURCE is a work that interprets or analyzes an historical event or phenomenon.  It is generally at least one step removed from the event is often based on primary sources. Examples include: scholarly or popular books, articles, reference books, textbooks.

Using Primary Documents

Finding Primary Sources Online

Primary Source Websites

Search these collections and databases for Primary Sources!

History Reference Center EBSCO Database

Offers the full text of history reference books, leading history periodicals, historical documents, and biographies of historical figures.

  • Nearly 57,000 historical documents
  • More than 80,000 biographies of historical figures
  • More than 1,990 full-text reference books, encyclopedias and non-fiction titles
  • Nearly 46,000 historical photos & maps
  • More than 80 hours of historical video

Locating Primary Sources in Books

  Locating Primary Sources in Books

      How do I find primary sources in books?

  • Often books contain excerpts or entire transcripts of primary source materials. When searching the online catalog, look for subject headings that use the terms "personal narratives" or "sources."  These terms indicate there are primary sources located in a book. 

Search the Library Catalogs (NHS and Newburyport Public Library)

Remember that primary sources may be in the form of reprints (monograph compilations, reprinted letters, diaries, microfilm, etc.)  Doing a search in a library catalog adding the following subject headings to your keyword search, will help you find these reprints as well as original archival collections:

charters   correspondence   diaries   interviews   manuscripts  oratory  pamphlets   pictorial works   sources   speeches

Electronic Databases with Primary Source Materials

Locating Primary Sources in Electronic Databases  

 The databases listed below contain primary source materials that are searchable by subject and most are available full text.

Revolutionary War Primary Documents LINK

Locating Primary Sources on the Web

Locating Primary Sources 
on the Web 

  • Enter your search term and "primary source" in a Google search and you will find posted documents. 
Google Web Search

Library Media Specialist

Lynne Cote's picture
Lynne Cote
241 High Street Newburyport MA 01950
978-465-4440, ext 1139