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UMW Libraries
Simpson Library | Special Collections

History and American Studies: Primary Sources

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

What are Primary Sources?

A hand-drawn map of the Battle of Fredericksburg
Detail of Plan of the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia by Robert Knox Sneden

Primary sources are first-hand evidence from the historical period being studied. Historians use this evidence to establish historical facts.

The Department of History and American Studies at UMW says this about primary sources:

Primary sources are the core of historical research. Broadly defined, they 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.

Primary sources are different from secondary sources, such as journal articles. Secondary sources often cite primary sources and analyze their meaning, but secondary sources themselves are not first-hand evidence.

How to Find Primary Sources

A good first step for finding primary sources is to check the bibliographies of secondary sources to see which primary sources they cite. Then, you can search for those specific primary sources yourself.

There are many different ways to find primary sources. Here are some suggestions:

  • Look in Quest for diaries, journals, memoirs, collections of the papers of notable people, and published collections of primary sources. Try using these words in your Quest searches:
    • Sources
    • Personal narratives
    • Diaries
    • Correspondence
    • Interviews
    • Speeches
    • Facsimiles
  • Newspapers and magazines are often used as primary sources. Several historical newspapers are available in the library databases, and many older newspapers have entered the public domain and are freely available online. To find newspapers, see the Newspaper Articles guide. To find magazines, see the Magazines and Advertisements guide.

More suggestions are below. For additional advice, see the UMW History and American Studies Resources page.

Databases of Primary Sources

UMW pays for subscriptions to these databases. Access may require a UMW username and password.

Newspaper databases are listed separately. See below.

Newspaper Databases

These databases are listed in (approximately) chronological order. Databases containing the oldest content are at the top; databases containing the newest content are at the bottom.

UMW Special Collections and University Archives

Simpson LIbrary's Special Collections and University Archives includes a collection of rare books and archival materials relating to the history of the Fredericksburg area and of the institution.  Access is by appointment only at this time.  To make an appointment, call (540) 654-1752 or email

Our Digital Collections include collections of photographs, materials relating to James Farmer, oral histories compiled by university faculty and students, and a rich array of other items.  You can search through digitized versions of the Battlefield, the Bullet, Blue & Gray Press, and other publications using Eagle Explorer.

The DIgital Archiving Lab in room 322 of the Hurley Convergence Center has specialized equipment for scanning and preserving materials from our collections or for projects in History and American Studies courses.    

Primary Source Collections Online

Libraries and Archives

Primary Sources Collected in Books

These books are in the Reference section on the first floor of Simpson Library. Reference books may not be checked out, but if you find a useful document in one of these books, you can make a PDF scan using the library's book scanners.