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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
For more information on evaluating materials, please refer to our Evaluate Sources guide.
Have a question or need help?