Primary Sources

What are primary sources?

Primary sources are materials that provide direct evidence or firsthand testimony concerning the period or subject under investigation. The definition of a primary source may vary depending upon the discipline or context. Examples include:

  • Diaries, letters, speeches, interviews, manuscripts
  • Memoirs and autobiographies
  • Records of organizations and government agencies
  • Journal and newspaper articles written at the time
  • Photographs, audio recordings, video recordings
  • Public opinion polls conducted at the time
  • Research reports or articles reflecting the results of scientific experiments or studies
  • Works of art, architecture, literature, and music such as paintings, sculptures, musical scores, buildings, novels, poems, etc.
  • Artifacts such as plant specimens, fossils, furniture, tools, clothing, etc. of the time under study

What are secondary sources?

Secondary sources interpret or analyze an event or subject. Examples of secondary sources are biographies and journal articles written well after the event or time period under investigation.

Finding primary sources.

The search box on the main library webpage (use Advanced Search) is a good place to begin a search for primary sources. The library uses Library of Congress subject headings to classify the books in the collection and there are a number of Library of Congress subheadings that point to primary sources. They are:

  • correspondence
  • sources
  • diaries
  • personal narratives
  • interviews
  • speeches
  • documents
  • archives
  • early works to 1800

These terms can be used in a subject search or a keyword search. Examples of subject searches would be:

  • World War- 1914-1918 – Personal Narratives
  • Composers- Germany- Correspondence
  • Soviet Union- History- Sources

Examples of keyword searches would be:

  • Civil War and diaries
  • American Revolution and sources
  • Pablo Picasso and interviews

Subject searches will generally retrieve a more complete listing of sources than will keyword searches. Because Library of Congress subject headings are not always the first terms that come to mind (i.e. World War II is classified as World War- 1939-1945), keyword searches can be useful in identifying some sources. Note or click on the LC subject headings listed at the bottom of the record to look for further information on the topic through a subject search.Search by author to find writings by a particular individual or to find publications from an organization or government agency. Examples would be:

  • Roosevelt, Franklin D.
  • United States. Environmental Protection Agency
  • World Bank

Many primary documents are reprinted in published sources such as Documents of American History, Annals of America, and Speeches of the American Presidents and these and others are available in the library. Worldcat, a database of items found in libraries throughout the world, allows one to search for books and other materials not owned by the library. Some of these materials may be requested through interlibrary loan, especially if they are reprints or microfilm of primary sources. Rare books and archival materials are generally not available through interlibrary loan.

Using Periodical and Newspaper Indexes To Find Articles

Periodical and newspaper articles written during the period being studied are considered primary sources. One can use various indexes to locate citations to articles published in magazines and newspapers in the 19th and 20th centuries, for example. These indexes can be searched by subject or author.

They include:

The library has on microfilm many of the journals cited in the above indexes and they can be found by searching the journal title in the library catalog. A number of major newspapers are also available on microfilm including the London Times (1785-), the New York Times (1857-) and the Chicago Tribune (1849-). These and other newspapers are shelved by title in the Microforms Room in the basement of Mugar Library. Indexes to these newpapers are located in the Current Periodicals Room. The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune are available electronically and there are a number of other online databases that provide access to full-text articles from journals and newspapers.

They include:

Microform Collections

The library has important microform collections of American and English publications from the 15th-19th centuries.

  • Early English Books 1475-1640 (microfilm AC4 F60) and English Books 1641-1700 (microfilm AC4 F61) contain the text of books published in England, Scotland, and Ireland and books in English published abroad during the time periods indicated. These sets are also available online as
  • The Eighteenth Century (microfilm AC4 F62) is a collection of approximately 200,000 items printed in Great Britain and its colonies or printed in English elsewhere in the world from 1701-1800. It is based on the British Library’s Eighteenth Century Short Title Catalogue. An index, The Eighteenth Century: Guide to the Microfilm Collection, can be found in the Current Periodicals Room (Micro Ref X AC4 F62 Index). This set is available online as Eighteenth Century Collections Online
  • Early American Imprints, 1639-1800, a microfiche collection located in the Current Periodicals Room, contains the full- text of all known existing books, pamphlets, and broadsides printed in the United States or British American colonies from 1639-1800. American Bibliography. A Chronological Dictionary by Charles Evans indexes this collection. (X Z1215 F03R). Available electronically from the Boston Public Library. Register for e-card
  • Early American Imprints, 1801-1819.  American Bibliography, a Preliminary Checklist for 1801-1819 by Ralph Shaw and Richard Shoemaker indexes this collection. We have vol. 23,  Printers, Publishers and Booksellers Index and Geographical Index (XZ1215 F58, v.23).  Full collection available electronically from the Boston Public Library. Register for e-card
  • American Periodical Series: Eighteenth Century (microfilm Z6951 F42) and American Periodical Series: 1800-1850(microfilm Z6951 F46) include virtually all significant periodicals published in colonial America and in the United States through 1850. American Periodical Series: 1850-1900 (microfilm Z6951 F641) contains only a selection of materials published during this time period. All three collections are indexed in American periodicals, 1741-1900 by Hoornstra and Heath (X Z6951 H65).

An extensive collection of early American newspapers and newspapers from the Civil War and Reconstruction eras can also be found on microfilm in the library. The early American newspapers can be found by searching the series title, Early American Newspapers, in the library catalog or they can be found by searching the individual title of the newspaper. The Civil War and Reconstruction newspapers are listed individually in the catalog under title.

Government Documents

Materials produced by national, state, and local governments and national and international organizations may be considered primary resources. United States Senate and House hearings, resolutions, laws, etc. are primary documents as are publications of organizations such as the United Nations and the European Union. Presidential papers, treaties, and Supreme Court decisions are other examples of primary resources. Mugar Library and the Pappas Law Library have many government documents in print and on microfilm and microfiche, some going back to the 19th century. Important collections include the Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States (1931-33,1945-2001) and Foreign Relations of the United States (1932-1976). The Public Papers are available online from 1992-2011 and the Foreign Relations documents are available online from 1945-1968.There are several indexes that will facilitate access to government documents including

Readex AccessUN (199-?]-)
Description: "The Readex United Nations Index provides access to current and retrospective United Nations documents and publications." Includes publications from 1943 to the present.

ProQuest Congressional

Indexes information produced by or pertaining to the United States Congress from 1789 to the present. Provides full-text for many titles, generally from the early 1990’s to the present. Includes bills, laws, legislative histories, committee prints, and House and Senate documents and reports.


Primary Sources on the Web

Traditionally, most primary sources have been available in print and microform. With the increase in digitization of documents, many primary sources can now be found online. It has always been important for researchers to examine their sources critically but with the increased availability of online sources, it is especially important for users to consider the authenticity of documents and evaluate the provider of those documents. In general, websites produced by educational or governmental institutions are more reliable than personal websites. In evaluating a site, it is important to determine where the provider got the documents. The source of the original document should be cited whenever possible.Documents may be presented in several ways. They can be scanned so that an actual image of the original is produced. Documents may also be transcribed, either by re-keying the content of the document or by using optical character recognition to convert the image of the document into text. Transcription and software errors can occur so it is important to see the original source of transcribed documents whenever possible to determine if the transcription is complete and accurate. Some sites provide both formats so that one can see a facsimile of the original document along with the text version.


Selected List of Websites Containing Primary Source Materials


Provides over 7,000 images of advertisements from U.S. and Canadian newspapers and magazines for the period 1911-1955. Images are from collection at Duke University.

AMDOCS: Documents for the Study of American History

This site, maintained by the University of Kansas, has links to many important historical documents from 1400 to the present.

The American Civil War Homepage

Includes links to Civil War documents and photographs.

American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940

This collection of life histories consists of approximately 2,900 documents, compiled and transcribed by more than 300 writers from 24 states, working on the Folklore Project of the Federal Writers’ Project.

American Memory

This digital archive from the Library of Congress has over 100 thematic collections of historical documents, maps, moving images, sound recordings, and photographic images.

Avalon Project at Yale Law School: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy

Provides the text of many historical documents from around the world related to law, history, economics, politics, diplomacy, and government. Includes documents from the 9th century to the 21st century. In most cases, the source of the text is cited.

Compilation of Presidential Documents

Contains text and PDF versions of statements, messages, and other Presidential materials issued by the White House. Includes The Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents and The Daily Compilation of Presidential Documents. Available at this site from 1993 to 2012. The Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents is also available from 1965-2009 at Hein Online

Declassified Documents Reference System

This is a digital archive of declassified U.S. government documents that date from the end of World War II through the 1970s. It contains searchable transcripts of the text of documents as well as digital facsimiles of documents.

Digital Einstein Papers

Presents contents from The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein. Currently 5,000 documents covering the first 44 years of Einstein’s life are included.

Documenting the American South

This collection, sponsored by the library at the University of North Carolina, has texts, images, and audiofiles related to Southern history, literature, and culture from the Colonial period through the first decades of the 20th century.

EuroDocs:Online Sources for European History

This site, maintained by a librarian at Brigham Young University, has links to transcribed, translated, and facsimile documents from various European countries. Coverage is from the Medieval period to the present.

Founders Online

The National Archives in cooperation with the University of Virginia Press has provided over 120,000 documents related to the founders of the United States including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.


The digital library of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. Includes texts from the Middle Ages to the 20th-century.

Historical Census Browser

Census data pertaining to the population and economy of U.S. states and counties from 1790 to 1960.

Immigration to the United States, 1789-1930

A digitized collection from Harvard University that documents voluntary immigration to the United States from 1789-1930. It concentrates on the 19th century and includes approximately 1,800 books and pamphlets, 9,000 photographs, 200 maps, and 13,000 pages from manuscript and archival collections.

Internet History Sourcebooks Project

A collection that provides links to historical texts for Ancient History, Medieval Studies, and Modern History. There are also some thematically based subsets that include African History, East Asian History, Indian History, Jewish History, and History of Science.


Includes Abraham Lincoln’s speeches and writings from his Illinois years (1830-1861) as well as other materials from Illinois’ early years of statehood (1818-1829). This site is the product of the Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project based at Northern Illinois University.

Making of America

This site, produced at the University of Michigan, is a digital library of primary sources in American social history from the antebellum period through Reconstruction. The collection contains approximately 10,000 books and 50,000 journal articles.

Making of Modern Law: Legal Treatises 1800-1926

Includes over 21,000 works on British Commonwealth and American law. There are 14,900 titles from the nineteenth century and 7,100 titles from 1900-1926.

Making of Modern Law: Primary Sources , 1620-1979

Making of Modern Law: Primary Sources 1620-1979 enables researchers to access content previously only available in print or microform through an integrated platform that allows searching of full text, specific keywords or phrases, author, title, date, subject, and more.  It contains over 3.4 million scanned pages covering over 350 years of legal primary sources, such as United States codes, state codes, municipal codes, constitutional conventions and compilations, and other documents.


New York Public Library Digital Library Collection

Provides thousands of digital images from the NYPL collections including historical maps, illuminated manuscripts, and prints and photographs. It contains texts and images from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

North American Immigrant Letters, Diaries and Oral Histories

North American Immigrant Letters, Diaries, and Oral Histories includes personal narratives including letters, diaries, pamphlets, autobiographies, and oral histories.The materials begin around 1840 and extend to the present, focusing heavily on the period from 1920 to 1980.

Official Documents of the United Nations (ODS)

This database has the full text of approximately 800,000 documents, most of them published since 1993. Thousands of documents are being added every year, including many published prior to 1993. Resolutions and Decisions from 1946-1993 are available in a separate Resolutions database, accessible through the advanced search screen.

The Perseus Digital Library

This site, produced at Tufts University, provides digital images and transcribed text (in translation or original language) from ancient Greek and Latin sources. Also includes documents related to English Renaissance literature and to London.

Smithsonian Institution

Includes millions of records, including images, of resources in the Smithsonian collections.

UNESCO Archives Portal

Has links to primary sources from international organizations and countries throughout the world. Also links to exhibitions and to ongoing digitization projects.

United States National Archives & Records Administration

Provides digital images of many important documents in American history as well as the text transcript of these documents. Also has links to the presidential libraries where other digitized primary documents may be found.

Victorian Women Writers Project

The goal of the project is to produce accurate transcriptions of works by British women writers of the 19th century. Includes novels, poetry, political pamphlets, and religious tracts. Hosted by Indiana University.

Women Working, 1800-1930

Provides access to digitized resources selected from Harvard’s library and museum collections. These materials address the role of women in the US economy between 1800 and the Great Depression. Currently contains 3,500 books and pamphlets, 1,200 photographs, and 7,500 pages from manuscript collections.

World War I Document Archive

Extensive collection of transcribed documents related to World War I. Includes official documents, diaries, books, and images. Hosted by Brigham Young University Library.

Locating Manuscript Collections in Archives and Other Repositories

There are many archives and libraries throughout the world that hold important collections of primary documents. The Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University is one of them. To find other collections, check the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections and Repositories of Primary Resources. The National Union Catalog is a guide to manuscript holdings in the United States. Repositories of Primary Sources has links to over 5,000 archives and other repositories in the United States, Canada, Latin America, Europe, Asia and Africa.

Other Research Guides

Because primary sources vary by discipline, subject research guides compiled by Boston University librarians may be useful in identifying primary sources in a particular subject area. There is also a guide to the Archives and Primary Resources for the Study of Africa.

Citing Primary Resources

There are numerous style manuals in the library that provide information about citation format. They include the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (XBF767 P83 2010), MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing (XPN147 G444 2008), and the Chicago Manual of Style (XZ253 U69 2003). Information about citing online sources is available at a number of websites including: