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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.

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.

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


Most databases will contain some primary sources.  The following databases are recommended when looking for specific types of primary resources.

Newspapers and Journals

Other Databases

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.
  • Search the collections of other libraries:
  • 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
    Readers’ Guide Retrospective

Online Sources

  • Digital Maryland  Digital Maryland is a collaborative, statewide digitization program headquartered at the Enoch Pratt Free Library/State Library Resource Center in Baltimore. Its mission is to facilitate the digitization and digital exhibition of the historical and cultural documents, images, audio and video held by Maryland institutions
  • Constitute Project    Currently Constitute includes the constitution that was in force in September of 2013 for nearly every independent state in the world.
  • Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs, U.S. Department of State  The Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series presents the official documentary historical record of major U.S. foreign policy decisions. The series began in 1861 and now comprises more than 480 individual volumes.

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.

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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