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How to Find Primary Sources in History: Getting Started

Locating Primary Sources

Primary sources can be located in:


  • Digital format through online databases.  For example, we subscribe to America: History and Life and Manuscript Women's Letters and Diaries.


  • Freely available collections on the web.


  • Published in books and microforms that can be located in our library catalog and WorldCat.  

Check out "Making Sense of Evidence" from the History Matters website to help maximize your analysis of primary source documents.

Research Strategies

Primary sources can be challenging to find. The following strategies and resources are good places to start.

When searching primary sources:

  • Start early. Locating primary sources that fit your research often takes several steps.


  • Get help. Schedule an appointment with a librarian here. When requesting an appointment, be sure to provide specifics about your research topic and what types of sources you need to locate.


  • Be prepared to utilize information in multiple formats. The best sources for your topic may not be digitized or available online. You may need to use books, microfilm, microfiche or archived documents.

When searching for books, keywords can designate primary source types. For example:

John Wesley Powell AND diary
Snow Bowl AND interview

In addition, the Advanced Search tab in WorldCat will allow you to limit to Archival Sources.