Primary sources are original documents such as letters, diaries, legislative bills, laboratory studies, field research reports, and eyewitness accounts published during the era you are researching. There is no simple, foolproof way to find primary sources for historical research; rather, locating such sources tends to be an intuitive and creative process involving guesswork and blind alleys. To get started, try searching the library catalog with the search term sources or documents added to your keyword, or use the names of prominent figures as authors. Additionally, check with a reference librarian to find out if your library subscribes to any primary source databases. Primary documents may also be available in your library or on the Web through the following sources.
Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1946–79. 2,770 microfilm reels. A large collection of articles from journals published from colonial times through the nineteenth century. This database identifies journals focused on specific topics and offers full-text articles. Available on microfilm or in electronic format.
Wilmington: Accessible Archives, 1995–. Offers selected full-text articles in plain-text format from more than 2,500 issues of newspapers representing both southern and northern perspectives for the years 1860–1865. The database includes eyewitness accounts, hundreds of maps, official reports of battles, and advertisements from the period.
Norfolk: HarpWeek, 1990–. An electronic edition of the contents of Harper’s Weekly, a popular illustrated publication, for the years 1857–1916. Images of the pages have been digitally scanned to retain the original appearance and include both illustrations and full text. Some libraries may have only segments of this database covering the Civil War and/or Reconstruction.
Ann Arbor: ProQuest, 1999–. Offers the searchable full text of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other newspapers from their first issue on. Users can view both the article in its original format and the entire page on which the article appeared.
New York: New York Times, 1851–. A valuable print source for finding newspaper coverage on a particular historical topic. Topics are grouped under broad subjects with individual stories listed chronologically. Each index citation provides the date, section, page, and column of a story. Even without reading the stories themselves, users can get a detailed sequence of events from the index. Though the keyword search capability of Historical Newspapers Online offers some advantages, this print index provides a unique chronological record of events.
London: Times Publishing, 1966–. An excellent source for news on British life and world affairs from 1790 on. Offers citations for articles from the London Times. Sections of this index are published as Palmer’s Index to the Times.
6 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1892. With supplement covering 1882–1906. Provides citations to American and English periodicals, books, newspapers, and government documents of the nineteenth century. An electronic edition is also available, with 3.8 million citations and enhanced indexing.
New York: Wilson, 1900–. Indexes popular magazines by subject. This index is a good source for popular reactions to events, literary topics, and popular culture of the twentieth century. Available in print or electronic format. A companion index covers 1890–1900.
http://memory.loc.gov. A rich source of electronic reproductions of texts, images, sound, and film from the collections of the Library of Congress and collaborating libraries and museums. Materials include motion pictures from as early as 1897, sound recordings from World War I, and more than 300 pamphlets written by African Americans between Reconstruction and World War I. Browse collections by topic, period, document type, and region.
http://avalon.law.yale.edu. A well-edited, high-quality collection of full-text primary source documents particularly rich in legal and diplomatic history and human rights. Organized by period and topic and searchable by keyword, documents include internal links to materials referenced in the text.
http://eudocs.lib.byu.edu. A wealth of primary source material from 22 countries (plus Vatican City). Sites are sorted by country and listed chronologically. Available sources include letters, facsimiles of paintings and photographs, journals, and official documents. The links are compiled by Richard Hacken at Brigham Young University Library.
http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/index.html. A large collection of online texts and primary documents for the study of history. Three major sourcebooks, edited by Paul Halsall of Fordham University, cover ancient, medieval, and modern history; other collections focus on the history of science, African history, Islamic history, women’s history, and more.
http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/moagrp. A digital archive of books and journals from the antebellum period through Reconstruction. It is extremely useful for the study of American social history, with strengths in education, science and technology, psychology, and sociology. A work in progress, it already includes the full text of over 10,000 books and 50,000 journal articles published in the nineteenth century.
http://www.state.gov/www/about_state/history/frusonline.html. Provides collected correspondence, memoranda, treaties, presidential messages, and other documents related to U.S. foreign policy, arranged chronologically and by region. Online volumes cover the years spanning the Truman and Johnson administrations. For earlier documents, see the print collection Foreign Relations of the United States: Diplomatic Papers (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1861–).
http://www.gpoaccess.gov/pubpapers/index.html. A repository of proclamations, speeches, statements, photographs, and other presidential papers. Documents from the George H. W. Bush administration and later are currently available online. Papers from Hoover on will eventually be added; until then, see the print version of Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States (Washington: Office of the Federal Register, 1957–).
Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1941–74. 643 microfilm reels. Reproduces over 6,000 American books and pamphlets published between 1493 and 1875. The materials are organized by 12 disciplines. Series I spans 1493–1806; the larger Series II expands the pre-1806 material and extends to 1875.
New Canaan: Readex, 1980–. 90 microfilm reels. Reproduces the diaries of women who lived and traveled in the western, southern, and eastern United States. Available on microfilm only.
Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1938–67. 2,034 microfilm reels. Early English Books, 1641–1700. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1961–. 2,396 microfilm reels. A vast collection of books from the first texts printed in England to the Restoration. Also available as a database titled Early English Books Online (EEBO).
287 vols. London: Early English Text Society and IDC Publisher, 1864–. A long-running scholarly series that republishes Old English and Middle English texts in scholarly editions, bringing unpublished manuscripts, medieval dramas, and historical documents into print. New volumes of the series are being published by the Oxford University Press.
103 vols. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1966. A reprint series of original editions of early English accounts of travel to the New World. Available in print only.
You may want to undertake an oral history project or track down oral histories that others have compiled by consulting the Oral History Index (Westport: Meckler, 1990), by seeing if your library subscribes to the Oral History Online database, or by browsing Oral History Projects (by Subject) http://www.h-net.org/~oralhist/projects.html. Alternatively, you can simply search your library’s catalog with the term oral history or combine oral history with a keyword. Also consider getting primary sources from a county or state historical society’s collections or even from the archives of your own college or university. You may find yourself working with material that no one else has yet analyzed.