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History and American Studies: Uncovering Primary Sources

A research guide to finding books, articles, and other resources in History and American Studies

Using Primary Sources

Primary sources "include all materials produced by people. They include obvious sources like diaries, letters, speeches, government documents, contemporary publications, laws, police and court records, maps, newspapers, and photographs.

"Remember, however, that there are other primary sources too: public opinion polls, telephone directories, coins, inscriptions, advertisements, business records, works of art, city directories, poetry, music, buildings, statues, organizational minutes, railroad schedules, birth, marriage, and death records, novels, political debates, films, furniture, and tombstones. This list is far from exhaustive."  (From the UMW History and American Studies' Primary Sources web page.)

Citing Your Sources

While writing research papers, you may need to:

  List your sources in bibliographies or works cited, and

♦  Provide either footnotes or endnotes.

Here is a link to the UMW Libraries' Guide to Citing Resources.

Navigation Menu

Steps to Find Primary Sources

Notes and Bibliographies

Researchers often utilize—and cite—original resource material when writing their secondary works.  Consult the bibliographies and notes (footnotes or end notes) in these books and journal articles.

You can find periodical articles (and dissertations, another source of primary material) through the databases listed in the "Locating Articles" section of this guide. To ascertain the Library's print and online holdings of periodicals, use the catalog for print publications (and some online ones) and the Journal Finder for online periodicals (from the Library home page, click on "Find a Journal" in the "How Do I?" column at the right or click on "Journals" on the blue tabs at the top).

Also, a volume (usually the last) of many subject encyclopedia sets is frequently devoted to significant documents and related primary sources.

Books

Primary resources are often collected and reprinted as entire books.   For example:

  • Early Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball, 1825-1909
  • Lakota Noon: The Indian Narrative of Custer's Defeat
  • The Journals of Patrick Gass: Member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition
  • Forbidden Diary: A Record of Wartime Internment, 1941-1945
  • Little Women Abroad: The Alcott Sisters' Letters from Europe, 1870-1871
  • Woodrow Wilson: An Intimate Memoir
  • My Dear Mr. Stalin: The Complete Correspondence Between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph V. Stalin
  • The Russian Menace to Europe: A Collection of Articles, Speeches, Letters, and News Dispatches


How do you identify collections of primary sources such as these?  A subject heading in the Library’s online catalog with the subdivision "sources" indicates primary sources on that subject (e.g., "Indians of North America--Government Relations--Sources").  You will see other subdivisions as well.  Ones often used include:

  • Sources
  • Personal narratives (for first-person accounts)
  • Diaries
  • Correspondence
  • Interviews

You can also try just looking up a person’s name as a subject heading.  “Lewis, Meriwether” brings up The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Here's how you can use the library catalog to locate books of original sources:

1. Go to the Advanced Search page of the library catalog.

2. On the first line, type your topic in the search box. 

3. On the second line, type the subject subdivision for the type of primary source that you want to find.  For example, "sources."  If you want other types of primary sources, you can type more than one.  For example:  sources OR diaries OR "personal narratives" OR letters OR memoirs OR correspondence.  (The quotation marks around "personal narratives" ensures that these two words will be searched as a phrase.  Be sure to type OR in capital letters.)

4. Click "search."

You can also do an Advanced Book Search in Google Books and narrow your results to books published within specific year or years.

Periodical Articles

Magazine and journal articles can be primary sources.  For example, according to the abstract, Charles G. Westwater's "Finishing off the Japanese Navy" (Naval History, August 2015) is "an account of the July 24-28, 1945 Naval airstrike  . . . against Kure Naval Base in Japan.  The author served as radioman / gunner in a Helldiver bomber piloted by Ensign Harold Meyer.  It also details their bombing run against Hyakurigahara Airfield near Tokyo, Japan on July 10."

How would you find such works?  Follow a process similar to the one used to find book-length primary sources.  In the Library databases you can type your topic on one line and on the next type something like "sources or diaries or interviews or correspondence or letters or memoirs," etc.  Be creative!  Add as many words as you can think of, separating them by "or."

See the databases listed on the "Locating Articles" section of this guide, such as
American Antiquarian Historical Society Collections (1691-1877) and
American Periodicals Series Online (1741 to 1900)

You can also search multiple EBSCO databases.  Click on one of them, such as Academic Search Complete, click on "Choose Databases," and then select additional (or all) of the databases maintained by EBSCO.  Also try a Quest Advanced search.  

Newspapers and News Archives

Newspapers and news archives are excellent sources of primary material.  See the section of this guide on newspaper articles and news archives (and especially the major UMW guide, Newspaper Articles).

Online Resources (Surface Web)

Dozens of websites are annotated in the "Uncovering Primary Sources" section of this subject  guide.

Google Searches

You can find numerous primary sources through online searches.  Try a Google Advanced Search using your topic and perhaps "primary sources" or "documents" or some of the terms mentioned above.  See also Google Tricks on the "Navigating the Internet" tab of this subject guide.

Milestone Documents

Want additional material?  Consult the four volumes of Milestone Documents in World History: Exploring the Primary Documents That Shaped the World (REFB D5 .M55 2009).  This work is also available online through Salem History.

Primary Sources (General)

Includes "digital documents relevant to the fields of law, history, economics, politics, diplomacy, and government" from ancient times to the present.
 
Dictionary of Historic Documents
REFB D 9 .D525 2003
 
The University of Delaware's gateway to various collections of primary sources.
 
Part of the eHistory page at Ohio State University. Includes letters, historical texts, documents, and oral histories.
 
"History through the eyes of those who lived it." Covers the ancient world to the present.
 
This virtual library often includes links to primary sources.
 
 
Includes recordings of speeches, oral history interviews, performances, and lectures. See especially the gallery for U.S. Presidents.
 
Historic Documents
REFB E 839.5 .H57
 
The History Highway: A 21st Century Guide to Internet Resources
REFB D 16.255 .C65 H58 2006
 
"A collection of public domain and copy-permitted historical texts."
 
A massive collection that includes web pages organized by century, state and region, maps, and newspapers.
 
An annotated resource list maintained by librarians at the Internet Public Library.
 
MasterFile Premier (coverage varies)
Furnishes full-text coverage of thousands of periodicals, reference books, biographies, and primary source documents. Also contains an image collection.
 
Milestone Documents in World History
REFB D 5 .M55 2009
(Online access available through Salem History)
 
Provides a gateway for locating archival and manuscript collections.
 
A "selective list of websites" maintained by the library at the University of California at Berkeley. See also the library's guide to Primary Sources.
 
Provides full-text and full-image articles for the New York Times (1851 to within the last several years) the Washington Post (1877 to 1991), and the Chicago Tribune (1849-1987). Users can search the newspapers separately or together.
 
A link at the bottom directs users to "online primary sources by region." Part of the multi-section Resources website maintained by the UMW History Department.
 
A lengthy list, organized by topic.  Maintained by The World Wide Web Virtual Library.
 
Note: See also the bibliographies / notes in your various resources (both print and online). These references often include primary as well as secondary material. 

Primary Sources (United States)

Accessible Archives (coverage varies)
A subscription database that provides access to the Virginia Gazette (1736-1780), the South Carolina Gazette (1732-1780), the Pennsylvania Gazette (1728-1800), Godey's Lady's Book (1830-1898), the Liberator (1831-1865), and assorted other publications, including Civil War-era newspapers, 19th-century African American newspapers, and American county histories (to 1900).
 
Covers 800 to date.
 
American Decades: Primary Sources
REFB E 169.12 .A471977
 
American Diaries
REFB CT 214 .A7x 1983
 
This marvelous resource features collections of digitized primary sources and cultural documents.
 
Includes "digital documents relevant to the fields of law, history, economics, politics, diplomacy, and government" from ancient times to the present.
 
Provides access to the Brooklyn, New York, Daily Eagle newspaper.
 
Accesses newspaper pages from 1860-1922. This site also provides bibliographic information (name changes, publication runs, etc.) for American newspapers published from 1690 to date.
 
A Chronology of US Historical Documents
Covers the Magna Carta (1215) to date.
 

The Civil War
A collection of primary and secondary works, maintained by the Finding Dulcinea virtual library.

Conflicts in American History: A Documentary Encyclopedia
REFB E 174 .C655 2010
 
Includes a U.S. history textbook, annotated documents and other primary sources, essays, oral histories, maps, timelines, and reference resources of annotated websites, chronologies, and glossaries.
 
Includes links to the state archives of all fifty states.
 
A collection of historical documents.  Researchers can browse by era and theme. 

Documenting the American South.
Provides access to "texts, images, and audio files related to southern history, literature, and culture."

Documents of American History
REFB E 173 .C66 1973c
 
Part of the eHistory page at Ohio State University. Includes letters, historical texts, documents, and oral histories.
 
Encyclopedia of American Historical Documents
REFB E 173 .E54 2004
 
"History through the eyes of those who lived it." Covers the ancient world to the present.
 
Provides invaluable primary documents with its "balanced explanations of the most contentious issues in American history."

Founders Online
Correspondence and Other Writings of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams (and family), Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison.
 
Provides full-text access to 21 years of Harper's Weekly, a leading 19th-century illustrated newspaper.
 
Provides data from 1790 to 1960 from historical volumes of the U.S. Census of Population and Housing.
 
“Serves as a gateway to web resources and offers unique teaching materials, first-person primary documents, and guides to analyzing historical evidence.”
 
A massive collection that includes web pages organized by century, state and region, maps, and newspapers.
 
Provides "access to print, pictorial, and audio-visual collections and other digital services." The Library of Congress's page also includes a list of periodicals and newspapers "available inside the library."

Magazines and Advertisements (coverage varies).
A UMW Libraries research guide.  The "Magazines on the Internet" section contains individual titles that can be searched online.
 
"A digital library of primary sources in American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction."
 
Milestone Documents in African American History
REFB E 184.6 .M55 2010
(Online access available through Salem History)

Mount Vernon (Databases and Collections of George Washington's Estate)
 
Digitized materials from the collections of the Library of Congress.
 
Developed by the Historic Preservation Department at the University of Mary Washington. Enables users to search such area resources as 19th-century Fredericksburg directories, historic district codes, 18th- and 19th-century newspaper indexes, and local Mutual Assurance Policies and Censuses of Manufacturing Lists.

Slavery in America and the World:  History Culture and Law
Includes "all known legal materials on slavery in the United States and the English-speaking world, as well as materials on free African-Americans in the colonies and the U.S. before 1870."

Unknown No Longer
A "database of Virginia slave names."  Maintained by the Virginia Historical Society.
 
Virginia Historical Index
REFB F 221 .S93
Indexes material relating to Virginia and Virginians in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (1893-1930), the William and Mary Quarterly / William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine (1892-1919, 1921-1930), Tyler's Quarterly Historical and Genealogical Magazine (1919-1929), Virginia Historical Register and Literary Advertiser (1848-1853), the Lower Norfolk County Virginia Antiquary (1895-1906), Heming's Statutes at Large (1619-1792), Calendar of Virginia State Papers (1652-1869).
 
The Library of Virginia, the state archives and reference library, "maintains vast and varied collections of print materials, manuscripts, archival records, newspapers, photographs and ephemera, maps and atlases, rare books, and fine art that tell the history of the commonwealth and its people."  See also the link to its newer digital collections, DigiTool.
 
Sources are arranged by subjects, historical topics, and chronological periods. Maintained by The World Wide Web Virtual Library.

Primary Sources (Europe)

Contains "some of the core printed primary and secondary sources for the medieval and modern history of the British Isles."
 
"Compiled using data derived from the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts."
 
Includes "selected transcriptions, facsimiles, and translations."
 
An "index of scholarly websites that offer online access to digitised primary sources on the history of Europe."  Maintained by The World Wide Web Virtual Library.
 
"History through the eyes of those who lived it." Covers the ancient world to the present.
 
Full and excerpted texts of documents that address “governmental, legal, religious, and economic concerns,” as well as “women's and gender history, Islamic and Byzantine history, Jewish history, and social history.” Part of Fordham University's Internet History Sourcebooks Project.
 
A searchable database of more than 240,000 manuscripts and other primary sources about eighteenth-century London, "with a particular focus on plebeian Londoners."
 
Includes essays, text documents, maps, a timeline, a glossary, and other resources.
 
Contains the texts of almost 200,000 criminal trials held at London's central criminal court.

Primary Sources (Russia)

Includes "summary transcripts of 705 interviews conducted with refugees from the USSR during the early years of the Cold War. A unique source for the study of Soviet society between 1917 and the mid-1940s."

Russian and Soviet History Resources
A web page created by UMW Professor Steven Harris's History 485 class.
 
Part of Fordham University's Internet History Sourcebooks Project.

Primary Sources (World)

Documents That Changed the Way We Live
REFB CB 245 .J343 2017

Historic Cities
Contains "maps, literature, documents, books, and other relevant material concerning the past, present, and future of historic cities."
 
A collection of online texts that is well organized by history period and geographic region. Part of Fordham University's Internet History Sourcebooks Project.
 
A "digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts in digital form." Includes a link to the Wayback Machine, which provides access to archived versions of websites.
 
Full and excerpted texts of documents that address “governmental, legal, religious, and economic concerns,” as well as “women's and gender history, Islamic and Byzantine history, Jewish history, and social history.” Part of Fordham University's Internet History Sourcebooks Project.
 
Presents a "diversity of source material in modern European, American, and Latin American history, as well as a significant amount of material pertinent to world cultures and global studies.” Other Internet History "Sourcebooks" focus on African History, East Asian History, Indian History, Islamic History, Jewish History, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans* History, Women's History, Global History, and History of Science. Part of Fordham University's Internet History Sourcebooks Project.
 
Provides "access to print, pictorial, and audio-visual collections and other digital services."
 
Milestone Documents in World History
REFB D 5 .M55 2009
(Online access available through Salem History)
 
Includes declassified historical documents from around the world, particularly focusing on "the interrelated histories of the Cold War, Korea, and Nuclear Proliferation."
 
A collection of more than 200 primary sources, organized by region (a section of Women in World History).
 
Reviews of online primary-source archives (a section of World History Matters).

Primary Sources (Legal)

Includes "digital documents relevant to the fields of law, history, economics, politics, diplomacy, and government" from ancient times to the present.
 
Primary and secondary sources are included in this site's coverage of more than fifty of the most famous trials in history.
 
Produced by the Triangle Legal History Seminar, "a regional group of faculty and graduate students interested in legal history."  See also its home page.
 
Contains the texts of almost 200,000 criminal trials held at London's central criminal court.

Slavery in America and the World:  History, Culture and Law
Includes "all known legal materials on slavery in the United States and the English-speaking world, as well as materials on free African-Americans in the colonies and the U.S. before 1870."

Primary Sources (Wars)

 
A collection of more than 10,000 primary source documents.
 
The Cold War (Avalon Project)
 
Documents of World War II (Mount Holyoke College)
 
 
World War II: Documents (Avalon Project)

Newspaper Articles & News Archives

An extensive LibGuide produced by UMW Libraries.
 
Features notable films of the U. S. Government. "from training films to history, from our national parks to the U.S. Fire Academy and the Postal Inspectors."
 
The Museum's collection "spans the history of broadcasting" and includes thousands of television programs, radio programs, and commercials.
 

Vanderbilt Television News Archive
An extensive archive of television news.  "We have been recording, preserving and providing access to television news broadcasts of the national networks since August 5, 1968."

World News Network.
Includes hundreds of general and specialized news websites from around the world.

YouTube
This "worldwide viewing community" covers news and politics, music, entertainment, science and technology, sports, film and animation, people, and education.

Decorative Arts, Objects, Prints, and Related Works

American Political Prints, 1766-1876
Catalog of the collection in the Library of Congress.

Colonial Williamsburg: Online Collections. See also the site's collection on the American Revolution.

Find Images: Selected Online Museum Collections
"These museums have been selected for the quality and scope of their online collections."

Metropolitan Museum of Art (Collection)

National Museum of American History

Peabody Essex Museum
Artwork is accessible through the collection gateway.

Smithsonian (Collections)
 
The Library of Virginia, the state archives and reference library, "maintains vast and varied collections of print materials, manuscripts, archival records, newspapers, photographs and ephemera, maps and atlases, rare books, and fine art that tell the history of the commonwealth and its people."  See also the link to its newer digital collections, DigiTool.

Winterthur
Website of the "premier museum of decorative arts."  Click here for a listing of its online collections. Click here to search the museum's collections.

Periodicals