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SSI2-124: Utopia/Dystopia: Finding Primary Sources

Primary sources are anything created during the time period under consideration:  published books; unpublished letters; photographs or drawings; music or song lyrics; clothing; objects of everyday life; etc.

Digital Collections

Academic libraries and historical museums often try to digitize primary source collections held in their archives and special collections in order to make them available to the widest possible audience.

Google Books

Google Books contains the full text of millions of nineteenth-century texts.  If your research leads you to specific titles, you can search for physical copies in Primo or search Google Books.

Google Book Search

Google Books Ngram Viewer

The Ngram Viewer lets you explore word and phrase frequency in the corpus of Google Books.  It can be useful for detecting trends, but cannot tell you anything about the specific contexts of usage.

Strategies for Identifying Primary Sources

  • Aim for a variety of materials that will provide multiple perspectives on your topic.  In practice, this means using a variety of search strategies and more than one repository or database.
  • Consult the notes and bibliographies of recently published, good historical monographs and relevant scholarly articles.  If much of the cited primary source material is located in a distant archive, you may need to rethink your approach to your research topic.
  • Use the author search function in Primo.  You can use "corporate authors" to find writings published by government entities, businesses, or groups.
  • Look for scholarly editions of primary sources, or for "documentary histories" that include a selection of primary sources accompanied by scholarly annotations.
  • Use Library of Congress Subject Headings--especially the subheadings most frequently associated with primary sources.

Search Primo

Library of Congress Subject Headings for Primary Sources

Books in Primo are assigned Library of Congress Subject Headings.  In many ways, subject headings are a form of tagging, in that they represent the content of the material and provide ways for you to efficiently locate more materials that are conceptually related. 

Library of Congress Subject Headings are also quite useful for discovering primary sources. The following subheadings usually are added to indicate that the material is a primary source: sources, personal narratives, correspondence, diaries, manuscripts, or notebooks.  Once you've discovered the subject heading for secondary sources, try adding one of the primary source subheadings to see what you find.  Here are some examples:

Free love -- United States -- History -- 19th century -- Sources

Harmony Society -- History -- Sources

Free love -- United States -- History -- Sources

Shakers -- History -- Sources

Author-Title Searches

If you have specific authors and/or titles, it's usually smarter to do an advanced search in Primo:

Tirzah Miller Herrick

The Communistic Societies of the United States, by Charles Nordhoff

Remember that groups can function as authors, too:


Brook Farm Phalanx

Newspapers & Magazines - Digital Collections

Literary Primary Sources

Search the Literature Resource Center by genre to find possibilities!