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Primary sources overview

Finding primary sources is often the most difficult aspect of history research.   The sources available depend so much on topic, geography, and time period.  Your research process may look completely different for each topic.

This page is far from exhaustive, but it provides an overview of approaches I've found useful while helping students find primary sources.

Wikipedia footnotes/bibliography

I will often check for a Wikipedia entry at the very early stages of research to check to see if it is listing scholarly secondary sources.  Sometimes I get lucky and find references or even links to primary sources. Of course, this is hit and miss, because the quality of articles vary so much. But it is also a very quick and easy thing to check! 

Tip:  I specifically mention Wikipedia here, but you should also be paying attention to what primary sources are being used by historians in the scholarly sources you find.

Library historical primary source databases

See our separate research guide dedicated to library databases for historical primary sources.

We have a ton of them, including many newspaper and magazine databases with broad coverage and many specialized databases that focus on specific topics, geographies, or time periods.  We also have databases that contain historical government documents and Pennsylvania specific materials.  Our areas of greatest collection strength are American and British history from the late 18th-early 20th century.


You may not think of books for primary sources, but compiling historical primary sources and publishing them as books has a long tradition in history scholarship.  Here is a selection of what you might find in book format.  

  1. Individual or collected diaries/memoirs/oral histories

  2. Letters and/or papers of individuals

  3. Collected documents on the same topic and/or from a time period.

    • These type of works are especially useful if you are researching history of a geographical location where English is not the language, as you may find collections where the documents have been translated into English.

    • Tip:  I have found that many of these books will include one of the following words in their title:  sources, documents, or documentary.  Try adding one or more of those to your search to keep the focus on finding collections of primary sources.

  4. Images of physical artifacts (think things like collections of inscriptions, art, or other archeological artifacts)


  • A search string I will often use when looking for primary sources compilations is:
    • diary OR memoir OR letters OR "oral history" OR sources OR documents OR documentary
  • For pre-1923 books, search HathiTrust and/or Google Books.  It may have been digitized and available for download.

Open digital collections

There are tons out there, because almost all libraries,special collections,historical societies, museums etc. have made an effort to digitize some of their collections.

Tips for finding them:

  1. If there is a professor at WCU who does research in your geographic area and/or time period, ask them what they know about.

  2. Familiarize yourself with large online collections, like the Library of Congress Digital Collections, Digital Public Library, or EuroDocs.

  3. Do  a web search for guides to primary sources for a specific region, time period, or topic.  I usually  follow the formula of searching for :  guide primary sources insert region, time period or topic.  So, guide primary sources German history or guide primary sources religion or guide primary sources 19th century.

  4. Most libraries, museums, etc have either a .org or .edu website.  Use or in your google search to help find collections in those places.  Also try adding the phrase 'digital collection' to your search.

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