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Primary Sources  

Learn how to identify primary source materials. While they reside in many databases, we have identified a few that are primarily primary sources. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list. Check with the Research Librarian if you need more help.
Last Updated: Dec 15, 2014 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates
What are Primary Sources? Print Page

Define Primary Sources

Primary sources are the raw material upon which critical, analytic, and historic studies are based. These sources are the evidence left behind by participants or observers. Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to the truth of what actually happened during an historical event or time period. Here are some examples of primary sources: Original works of an author, illustrator, artist, photographer, songwriter, etc.

Original works of an author, illustrator, artist, photographer, songwriter, etc.
Letters Ledgers, Account Books, Bills Govt. Hearings
Speeches Oral History Tapes Census Data
Autobiographies Photographs, Posters Treaties
Diaries Newspaper Accounts Cartoons

How do I find primary sources in the Goucher College Library?

In Special Collections and Archives

There are many wonderful primary sources right in our own Special Collections and Archives. The Special Collections and Archives reading room is on the upper level of the Athenaeum and is open to researchers 10 am – 4 pm, Monday through Friday, except for campus holidays. Other research times are available by appointment. Contact Special Collections Librarian and College Archivist Tara Olivero (410-337-6347).

In Books and Manuscripts: search the online catalog

  • Search by Author to find original writings of a person, or documents published by a government or organization.
  • Search by Keyword or Library of Congress Subject Headings.
    Primary sources will be found in books with one or more of the following subject heading subdivisions:
--diaries --interviews --underground literature
--sources --anecdotes --sermons
--case studies --songs and music --personal narratives
--correspondence --public opinion --caricatures and cartoons
--photography --pictorial works --exhibitions


The Library also subscribes to many online databases that provide access to primary sources in a variety of areas of research.

Newspapers and Journals

Other Databases

  • Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922  Full-text of pamphlets, broadsides, advertisements, letters, slave narratives, and other literature by and about African-Americans from 1535 to 1922.
  • American Civil War Letters & Diaries, 1861-1865  Full text of letters, diaries and memoirs written by over 2000 authors and biographies. Invaluable for research on this period of history; can be searched by names of people, battles, personal events, places, and dates.
  • Black Thought and Culture Contains 438 works of non-fiction written by 192 leading African Americans from colonial times to 1975.
  • British and Irish Women's Letters and Diaries  A collection which describes the immediate experiences of 91 British and Irish women, as revealed in approximately 24,000 pages of diaries and letters.
  • Documenting the American South Primary sources and other materials related to southern history, literature, and culture, sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's library.
  • Early American Imprints Series I and Series II  Full-text of virtually every book, pamphlet and broadside published in America from 1639 to 1819. Includes almanacs, cookbooks, diaries, textbooks, advertisements, contracts, charters, legislation, treaties, poems, songs, plays, the Bible, sermons, eulogies, and much more.
  • Foreign Relations of the United States 1861-1960 (Incomplete run, University of Wisconsin)
  • Foreign Relations of the United States 1961-1976 (State Department)
  • Founders Online George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams (and family), Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. Over 119,000 searchable documents, fully annotated, from the authoritative, federally funded Founding Fathers Papers projects.

How do I find primary sources in other places?

In Books and Manuscripts:

  • Search the Web Numerous full text literary works are freely available on the web. Particularly valuable is Google Book Search which points to hundreds of thousands of public domain books that may be downloaded as PDF copies. One may limit one's search from Google's Advanced Book Search to only those titles that are full-text.
  • Look in bibliographies and compilations, such as:
    American diary literature, 1620-1799 / by Steven E. Kagle. In the library: Main Collection 810.9 K11a
    Oral history in Maryland : a directory/ compiled by Betty McKeever Key. In the library: 907.2 K44o

In Newspapers and Journals

  • Union lists tell you where to find specific newspapers in other libraries
    Newspapers in Maryland libraries : a union list / compiled by Eleanore O. Hofstetter and Marcella S. Eustis. In the library:  071Q N558 Newspapers in microform: United States, 1948-1972. In the library: 070Q U585n.1
  • Periodical indexes give you access to older articles.
    International Index to Periodicals 1907-1964.  In the library: 050 I61.
    Humanities and Social Sciences Retro
    Nineteenth Century Masterfile
    Readers’ Guide Retrospective

Online Sources


What are secondary sources and how do I find them?

A secondary source is a work that interprets or analyzes an historical event or phenomenon or the original writing of an author. A recent article that evaluates and analyzes the relationship between the feminist movement and the labor movement in turn-of-the-century England is an example of a secondary source; if you were to look at the bibliography of this article you would see that the author's research was based on both primary sources such as labor union documents, speeches and personal letters as well as other secondary sources. Textbooks and encyclopedias are also examples of secondary sources.
--from the UC Berkeley guide.

How do I find secondary sources?
A wealth of secondary literature can be found by using the databases available on this website. If you need help, ask a Reference librarian for assistance.


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