Research with primary sources

Historical research relies on documents and artifacts that date from the time period being studied. This is true whether you are studying world events like World War II or are trying to learn more about the life of your great-grandmother. 

While you can read about local and world history in books and articles, historians study primary sources.

What is a primary source?

A primary source is something written or created during the time period you are studying.  

Primary sources include:

  • Newspapers at the time
  • Documents like letters and diaries
  • Speeches
  • Interviews 
  • Images and photos
  • Artifacts

These sources can show what life was really like in that time period. You may discover details about historical events that were left out of a history book. You can also learn about people and local events that aren’t in the history books.

Primary source materials reflect the attitudes and language used when they were made. Historical articles, images and advertisements may include words and depictions now recognized as racist, sexist or otherwise offensive. 

Look for resources created by people in groups most affected by discrimination to get a more thorough understanding of life and experiences of the period.

Historical newspapers

Newspaper archives may contain all the advertisements, photographs and other images that appeared in the newspaper’s pages. Learn about everything from world events to the cost of groceries.

Read through newspaper issues one by one and discover what was in the news at the time, or search for a specific subject.

Find more Oregon primary sources

Oregon State Archives web exhibits 
Oregon history exhibits that incorporate primary resources. 

Oregon Digital
University of Oregon searches the collections of libraries around the state to find both documents and images.

Find national and international primary sources

Digital collections of the Library of Congress
Documents, audio recordings, images, videos and maps. 

You can:

  • Listen to people who were formerly enslaved tell their stories.
  • Watch video clips from the time of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
  • View maps from the American Revolution.

National Geographic Virtual Library
Articles, maps, images and ads from National Geographic magazine. From 1888-1994. 

Masterfile Premier database
Contains the text of thousands of primary source documents. 

LIFE Magazine archive
For historic photos. Spans the 1860s to 1970s.