Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

History 200: Doing History (Prof. Gomez): Primary Sources (General)

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.

U.S. Newspapers & Magazines - Digital Collections

Using Secondary Sources as Primary Sources

In some cases, you may wish to interpret as primary sources texts that originally were created as scholarly secondary sources.  For example, if you are investigating the eugenics movement in the United States in the early twentieth century, you could look at articles on the topic that were published in academic journals in the 1910s and 1920s.

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:

Secondary source subject heading:  Chinese Americans -- History
Primary source subject heading:   Chinese Americans -- History -- Sources.

Secondary source subject heading: United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865.
Primary source subject heading: United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Personal narratives, Confederate.

Statistics, Opinion Polls, and Other Datasets

Thinking critically about a few initial questions will help you more quickly reason out the best starting place to find the statistics you need.

Questions to ask about statistics:

  • Where do statistics you want come from? 
  • Who gathers the data? Who would want to?
  • Who makes the data available?  Where?
  • What is my topic?
  • What is the geographical range or region for which I want statistics?
  • What is the date range I need?

Once you've answered these basic questions, consult Statistics Sources for up-to-date weblinks to sources of statistics that may meet your needs.  You also may wish to explore some or all of the statistics databases listed below.

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.

Online Collections

This is only a sampling of the collections out there, just to get you started! 

Government Documents

Government documents from all three branches can be extraordinarily rich primary sources. 

In addition, here are a few key sites for identifying and locating govenment documents:

  • GPO's Federal Digital System (FDsys)
    Provides public access to information submitted by Congress and federal agencies.
  • Thomas (U.S. Congress)
    Search & retrieve legislation from the 101st to current congresses.
  • HathiTrust Digital Library
    A digital collection of print materials made available online by member libraries. Not all content is available to Puget Sound users, but many government documents are accessible within HathiTrust since they are Public Domain materials.
  • National Security Archive
    An independent non-governmental research institute and library located at The George Washington University, the Archive collects and publishes declassified documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
  • GovTrack.US
    GovTrack.us is a tool that tracks the activities in the U.S. Congress, promoting and innovating government transparency and civic education through novel uses of technology. You'll find here the status of U.S. federal legislation, voting records for the Senate and House of Representatives, information on Members of Congress, district maps, as well as congressional committees and the Congressional Record.