Research & Documentation Online 5th Edition

Primary sources

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.

The popular press

American Periodicals Series, 1741–1900.

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.

The Civil War: A Newspaper Perspective.

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.

Historical Newspapers Online.

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 Times Index.

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.

The Official Index to the Times.

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.

Poole’s Index to Periodical Literature, 1802–1881.

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.

Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature.

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.