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Find Primary Sources

What are primary (and secondary) sources?

Before we jump into finding primary sources, it's helpful to first understand the difference between primary and secondary sources.

Primary sources provide first-hand accounts of an event or raw information. Examples include letters, diaries, photographs or other works of art, statistical data, court records, and interviews.

Secondary sources provide analysis, commentary, or discussion on a subject. These sources do not come directly from an author who was a part of or witnessed the event but seek to analyze, interpret, or examine content. Examples include journal articles, academic books, biographies, and literature reviews.

Keep in mind that context is key when determining whether or not a source is considered to be a primary source. For example, a newspaper article written by a reporter who witnessed the event covered in the article is a primary source. However, a newspaper article about an event the author did not personally experience or witness is a secondary source.

If you'd like extra context on the differences between primary and secondary sources, check out this article on Scribbr.

Finding Primary Sources

Before you dive into finding primary sources, it can be helpful to conduct a little pre-research to make the most of your research time and effort. Considering identifying:

  • Who was involved - significant people, groups, populations, or organizations
  • When did the event take place - beginning and ending dates for people and events (keep in mind that the older the event, the longer it likely took news to travel or be printed)
  • Where did the event take place - locations, including any name changes or alternative names (for example, the massacre at Wounded Knee may not have been called a massacre at the time)
  • What kind of sources might contain the type of material you’re looking for - magazines or newspapers for life and society reflections, letters and diaries for personal insights, legislation and laws for government attitudes, photographs for visuals of the event

Secondary sources can be a great place to do some of this research. Consider reviewing the library's reference materials or even using Google.

Primary sources can be found in many of our databases, so you'll want to choose a database that is relevant to your subject or topic. See the Choosing a Database page of our Develop a Search Strategy guide for more help on picking the right resources. If you're still having trouble narrowing down your selections, please reach out to us through Ask Us, and our research team will be happy to provide guidance on the best databases for your research.

Once you've identified the databases you want to search, you'll want to craft your searches. Make sure to include keywords in your search that identify the types of primary sources you want to find. For example, if you’re looking for personal narratives from the Civil War, you might try searches like:

  • Gettysburg AND diaries
  • "Civil War" AND "United States" AND "personal narratives"

How you craft your search is largely dependent on what kind of primary source you want to find. Examples of other keywords you might include are:

  • letters
  • correspondence
  • memoirs
  • diaries
  • autobiographies
  • interviews
  • oral histories
  • speeches
  • maps
  • photographs
  • reports
  • pamphlets
  • cases or lawsuits

If you're new to creating a search, we recommend reviewing the Drafting Your Search page of our Develop a Search Strategy guide to help you get started.

Additional Resources to Search

Primary sources can also be found outside of the library, so if you're not having much luck finding what you need in the library, you might want to consider expanding your research.

  • Citation Tracing
    Look at the citations whenever you find a useful secondary source on your topic (like a book, article, or dissertation). They should include any primary sources that the author used, and you can then locate those primary sources yourself.

Like any other resource, primary sources need to be evaluated for reliability and objectivity. Every author brings some bias to the materials they create, and while this doesn't disqualify the information, it should be considered when evaluating and interpreting the source. Please note that primary source materials may contain language or images that are considered to be offensive in today's world. These materials are a reflection of the language and culture of the time period in which they were written.

Consider the:


  • What is the background of the author, and could it influence the material? Examples: abolitionist versus slave owner, protester versus police
  • Is the author known to exaggerate, or can you determine the author's state of mind at the time it was created?


  • Is it an autobiography, such as a diary, created by and for the author?
  • Was the material written to inform, teach, sell, entertain, or persuade the audience?


  • How close in time to the event was the material created? Example: a news report from a war correspondent embedded with the troops versus a report written afterward and away from the battle
  • How has society changed since the event?
  • Does the passage of time affect the significance of the event?


  • Is the material real or a copy?
  • Was the material translated from another language or a copy? Could there be translation errors or words in the source material that don't directly translate to another language?


  • What was going on in the world, the country, the region, or the locality when this was created?
  • What was the significance of the source at the time it was created?

For more information on evaluating materials, please refer to our Evaluate Sources guide.