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Finding Primary Sources: Start Here

A guide to finding primary sources at Smith Library.

Definition

Primary sources are original records created at the time historical events occurred or well after events in the form of memoirs and oral histories.

These sources serve as the raw material to interpret the past, and when they are used along with previous interpretations by historians, they provide the resources necessary for historical research.

Helpful Keyword Suggestions for Searching

Add the word "Source" to a subject keyword search to find primary sources.

Other subject keywords that help indicate primary sources:

  • Correspondence
  • Diaries
  • Interviews
  • Notebooks

You can also search terms such as:

  • Narratives
  • Oral History
  • Photographs
  • Recordings
  • Archive

Hints

Looking at the bibliography of your best research source will show you what primary sources were used, and you can use them too!

Examples of Primary Sources

Primary source examples include:

  • Diaries
  • Speeches
  • Letters
  • Literary works (collections)
  • Articles or essays (historical)
  • Manuscript facsimiles (or copies)
  • Autobiographies
  • Transcribed interviews
  • Brochures, pamphlets, postcards, programs, advertisements
  • Government documents
  • Official records (birth, marriage, death)

(Excerpts or translations can count as primary texts.) 

Herman Melville Letter

This letter from Herman Melville to his Aunt Lucy Melville, written when he was a boy of nine, can be found in The Osborne Collection in Special Collections at Southwestern University.

Evaluating Primary Sources

For tips on evaluating the veracity and trustworthiness of a primary source, see the guidelines created by the American Library Association's RUSA.