Primary Sources

Primary Sources

Primary Sources are documents or objects which were created by individuals who actually experienced an event.

Examples include artifacts; audio-recordings; autobiographies; clothing; diaries; documentary films; digital recordings; editorials; essays; eyewitness accounts; fiction/works of literature (published at the time); government documents; interviews/podcasts; letters; manuscripts; maps; memoirs; memos; music; narratives; newspaper articles; paintings; photographs; public opinion polls; research data; speeches; statistics; twitter feeds/blogs/facebook posts; websites; works of art.

Secondary sources are produced by individuals who did not actually experience the event.
Usually secondary sources use primary sources and then add interpretation or synthesis.

Examples include biographies, journal articles, books (written after the event).

Tertiary sources are collections of primary and secondary source materials that are usually fact based.

Examples include almanacs, indices, encyclopedias, timelines, manuals, textbooks

The University of Illinois Library's Primary Source Village is a great place to learn about Primary Sources, their values and uses.

Tips for Searching for Primary Sources

From the Learning Commons catalog:

Use Advanced Search for more searching options.

Use the Boolean Operators (AND, OR, NOT) in the pull-down menus that connect the search boxes.

Try using different combinations from the Examples list for search terms:

  • diary and history
  • letters and World War II
  • speeches and history
  • documentary and Vietnam War
  • “eyewitness account” and holocaust
  • “government documents” and Watergate
  • photographs and “September 11 Terrorist Attacks, 2001”
  • autobiography and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Type in search terms and do either a keyword or a subject search.

Use limiters such as language, publication date, version, or format.

Learning Commons Books/eBooks to Check Out

American Revolution : Primary Sources E203 .A577 2000

Daily Life through American History in Primary Documents (EBSCO eBook) E161 2012eb

The Medieval and Early Modern World : Primary Sources and Reference D101.2 .M34 2005

Milestone Documents in African American History : Exploring the Essential Primary Sources REF E184.6 .M55 2010

Milestone Documents in American History : Exploring the Primary Sources that Shaped America E173 .M62 2008

Milestone Documents of World Religions : Exploring Traditions of Faith through Primary Sources REF BL31 .M56 2011 and Online

Our Documents : 100 Milestone Documents from the National Archives E173 .U62 2003 

Slavery throughout History. Primary Sources HT863 .S56 2000 

The World in Ancient Times. Primary Sources and Reference D52 .W67 2005

Research Databases for Primary Sources

Alexander Street Press World History in Video or American History in Video

Type in search terms and use limiters
Sort by oldest first
Universal Newsreels, Release 106, December 29, 1932

Academic Search Complete 
Use Advanced Search
Select Primary Documents from Publication Type
Type in search terms
Search term: World War II
Results: The German surrender documents--WWII.

Illinois Digital Sanborn Maps
Select city, county and date

Public Opinion Polls

American research-based consulting company, founded by George Gallup in 1935, famous for its public opinion polls

Polling Report
Independent, nonpartisan resource on trends in American public opinion

Pew Research Center
"Numbers, facts and trends shaping your world"

Primary Sources Websites

Digital Public Library of America
DPLA brings together the riches of America’s libraries, archives, and museums, and makes them freely available to the world.

Library of Congress American Memory
broad collection of documents, images, film and ephemera covering all aspects of American history

Library of Congress Chronicling America
digital collection of American newspapers from 1836 to 1922 with a directory to information about American newspapers 1690-present

Library of Congress Manuscript Reading Room
manuscripts from over 30 collections reflecting a broad range of American history

Library of Congress Veterans History Project
personal histories of veterans of America’s wars from World War I to the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars

History Matters: Many Pasts – George Mason University
contains primary documents in text, image, and audio about the experiences of ordinary Americans throughout U.S. history

Biblion – New York Public Library
official corporate records of the 1939–40 New York World's Fair, from technological innovation and classical music, to pop culture

World History Matters - Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media
portal to world history websites with access to primary sources

Internet Archive
digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts in digital form

The Avalon Project
historical documents dating from ancient times to the 21st century

National Security Archive
independent non-governmental research institute and library located at The George Washington University

UT-Austin's Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection
general interest and thematic maps of the world, both present-day and historical

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
special collections of oral histories, historical film, and photographs

Documents from the September 11, 2001 Attack on America
special documents from The Avalon Project

9/11 Memorial in New York City
information from the 9/11 Memorial

September 11 Digital Archive
digital media collection from the Center for History and New Media

Library of Congress, September 11, 2001, Documentary Project
photographs, written narratives, videos, and drawings from the American Folklife Center

September 11 Sourcebooks
primary source documentation from the National Security Archive