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History: Primary Sources

A guide to doing historical research through the Lila D. Bunch Library

What Are Primary Sources?

Primary sources differ from discipline to discipline.  In general, they contain or illustrate original or first-hand information, created at the time of the event, or later by someone who witnessed or experienced the event.



   Letters, diaries, journals, memoirs, personal narratives, oral histories

   Newspaper coverage at time of event, speeches, interviews, photographs, recordings

   Artifacts such as period clothing, furnishings, tools, weapons



   Original scientific research studies, laboratory notes, proceedings of conferences, and dissertations


Literature/The Arts:

   The original work – books, stories, poems, plays, music manuscripts, works of art


Secondary sources interpret, analyze, discuss, or comment on primary sources.  They are at least one step removed from the event, study, or work.  Examples of these include scholarly articles, reviews, reference works, and textbooks.

Searching for Primary Sources

To search for primary sources in the online catalog, do a subject search, using your topic or a name.  Add words describing the types of sources or documents you want to find, such as diaries, journals, personal narratives, etc.  Adding the word “sources” will also locate collections of primary documents.


For example:

      United States history--diaries

      United States history--personal narratives

      Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865--correspondence

      United States history - sources

Useful Links

Featured Resource

History Vault is a collection of primary source documents covering the struggle for black freedom in the twentieth century.  Included are federal government records, organizational records and personal papers. The collection offers the opportunity to study well-known and also unheralded events from the perspectives of the men, women, and even children who experienced the events first-hand. It spans the period from the founding of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs in the last decade of the 19th Century to the riots that followed the verdict in the Rodney King police brutality case in the last decade of the 20th century. Create your own search, use one of the suggested searches, or simply browse the collection.