Help! I Need to Find Primary Sources

Have you been told to use primary sources in your research? Read on for some suggestions!

What are primary sources, anyway?Revolutionary war map

A primary source is one which was created during the time period being studied. Examples could include documents, speeches/interviews, images, articles (written during the time period), and even artifacts. So, if you are studying the Holocaust, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank is considered a primary source. Someone researching the Civil War could use Matthew Brady’s battlefield photographs. And President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech is a great primary source for those studying the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Where can I find them?

A great place to begin your search is American Memory, a “digital record of American history and creativity.” It contains documents, audio recordings, images, videos and maps from the Library of Congress. Here you can listen to former slaves tell their stories, watch video clips from the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, or view maps from the American Revolution.

The National Archives also has a large collection of primary source materials for students and educators. They are arranged by time period and are keyword searchable. Would you like to see President Kennedy’s academic record at Harvard? Or view a handwritten copy of the Oregon Treaty that set the boundary between the U.S. and Canada?  You’ll find them here.

The Masterfile Premier database contains the text of thousands of primary source documents. To find them, once you are in the database, click on the Advanced Search link. Then enter your search terms in the box at the top, and make sure to choose Primary Source Document in the Publication Type box before you click on Search. You'll need your library card number and PIN to search Masterfile Premier.

For historic photos, a great place to look is the LIFE Magazine archive (no library card required), which spans the time period from the 1860s and 1970s.

Are you looking for primary sources specifically about Oregon history? The Oregon Digital Library searches the collections of libraries around the state to find both documents and images. The Oregon State Archives also has some web exhibits about Oregon history that incorporate primary resources; topics range from the creation of the Oregon constitution to Oregonians’ experiences in World War II.

Still have questions? Check out our blog post on Finding Primary Source Articles or contact a librarian for more help!

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