Research Using Primary Sources
The following is a select list of resources and strategies for starting research using primary sources. For further assistance, ask at the Reference Desk or contact the Subject Specialist Librarian for your subject area.
This site is adapted for the University of Oregon Libraries from the UC Berkeley site maintained by Corliss Lee, Library Research Using Primary Sources
Off-campus access to some of the electronic resources listed on this page is limited to current UO students, faculty, and staff and is indicated by a UO button .
"A primary source is a document, image, or artifact that provides evidence about the past. It is an original document created contemporaneously with the event under discussion. A direct quote from such a document is classified as a primary source. A secondary source is a book, article, film, or museum that displays primary sources selectively in order to interpret the past." Robert C. Williams, The Historian's Toolbox: A Student's Guide to the Theory and Craft of History, p.58
Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to what actually happened during a historical event or time period. A primary source reflects the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer. Many primary sources are unique and can only be found in one library or manuscript collection in the world. Fortunately, many have also been copied onto microfilm, published, reissued, translated, or, in some instances, published digitally on the web. Remember, however, your best source may not be on the web.
Some examples of primary sources include:
- Books, magazine and newspaper articles published at the time
- Hand-written documents like diaries and journals
- Laws & court cases
- Speeches, interviews, letters
- Memoirs and autobiographies
- literary manuscripts
- Records of government agencies
- Records of organizations
- Public opinion polls
- Fiction from a particular time and place
- Research data
- Religious or philosophical texts
- Artifacts of all kinds: physical objects, furniture, tools, clothing, etc.
- Photographs, audio recordings, movies and videos
- Art, including paintings, prints and other media
For further detail see UC Berkeley's Library Research Using Primary Sources
A secondary source is a work that interprets or analyzes an event or phenomenon well after the fact. It is generally at least one step removed from the event. An article about the writings of Jorge Luis Borges or one written in 1990 exploring the history of the Vietnam war, would be considered a secondary source since it would be written later looking back at the event, while Borges's writings themselves or a news article written during the Vietnam war would be considered primary.
To help place a primary source in its context-historically, culturally, politically, etc.-start with the Research Guides by Subject linked from the Library home page. These guides provide information about relevant article indexes, reference sources, and and search strategies that will help you locate secondary sources.
Reference sources such as specialized encyclopedias (see for example specialized U.S. history encyclopedias) are secondary sources that can help you identify a topic for your research, provide an overview of a specific issue, and suggest other materials which might be useful for your research. They can provide historical context, relevant dates and the names of key individuals related to your topic. Always use the index if one is available and remember to follow the cross-references. For ideas on where to begin, ask at the Reference Desk or check out the Research Guides by Subject on the UO Library home page.
A good place to start your search for primary sources is in the UO Library & Summit catalogs.
The UO Libraries belong to the Center for Research Libraries, an international consortium that provides access to unique and unusual collections of library materials international in scope, and comprehensive in disciplines. Use CRL Catalog for quick access to CRL collection info. Use Interlibrary Loan to borrow from CRL, as well as microfilm and other materials.
- The UO Library Catalog allows you to identify books by topic, title or author and to identify journals and magazines owned by the UO Libraries. If you do not find a pre-1976 book here, look in the card catalog in the Current Periodicals Room. Note: The card catalog only contains cards for author and title entries, not subject.
- Summit: The Orbis Cascade Alliance Union Catalog puts over 25,000,000 items at your fingertips. Books not owned by the UO Library or not available for check out may be requested by current UO students, faculty and staff through Summit. Summit loans arrive at the Check-out Desk within two to three working days.
- WorldCat allows you to search and request books not owned by UO or Summit from other libraries around the U.S. and a few in other countries. Most libraries do not loan out rare books or archival materials, but you may find reprints or microfilm of primary sources that you can borrow through interlibrary loan.
Catalog Searching Tips
In order to search a library catalog effectively, it is helpful to know something about Library of Congress Subject Headings. LC Subject Headings (LCSH) are standardized terms developed by the Library of Congress to describe materials listed in library catalogs and to make it easier to arrange them by topic.
LCSH terms are not always the first terms that come to mind. For instance, the LC Subject Heading for World War II is 'World War 1939 1945' and the subject heading for the Salem witch trials is 'trials (witchcraft) Massachusetts Salem'. See the Keyword search strategy below for tips on identifying appropriate LC Subject Headings for your search.
Some of the LCSH subheadings that point to primary sources include:
- early works to 1800
- personal narratives
Search by Keyword in the library catalog using various terms for your topic paired with the subheadings listed above. This will identify some of the relevant sources available in the UO Libraries or Summit. Note the LC Subject Headings so you can use them to search by Subject to find more information on the same topic.
Search by Author in the catalog to find the writings of a known author or names of groups or organizations. e.g. Carson, Rachel OR National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Books on Microfilm
The UO Library Catalog contains records for each of the items in some of our largest microform collections such as the History of Women and Western Americana collections. These collections include compilations of letters, manuscripts, books and other documents. Another Keyword search strategy is to combine your search terms with these collection titles to find individual items within the collections. You can also use keywords paired with the word 'microfilm' to look up other collections, but you will need to look in collection guides or indexes to find individual items in most of our microfilm collections.
More extensive search guides are available for the following:
- Guide to the English Short Title Catalog. The ESTC (not available off campus) indexes the Early English Books Collection (EEB). EEB includes thousands of reels of microfilm of books published in English between 1475 and 1700. UO owns the 1475-1640 collection located in the Knight Library at MICROFILM AC1 .E5. Reels to 1641-1700 may be borrowed through interlibrary loan. UO now has access to EEBO: Early English Books Online
- Guide to German Baroque Literature: The Harold Jantz Collection an alphabetical index to the collection of 611 reels of microfilm. Select Search and then the Collection Title to search multiple fields within the guide. The collection is located in Knight Library under the call number MICROFILM PT1126.G4.
- History of Women Collection tip guide, provides tips on how to search the library catalog for items in this extensive collection of materials by and about women written between 1700 and 1920. An online index is also available. The collection is located at MICROFILM HQ1111 .H5.
- Guide to the Madden Ballads a collection of 30,000 English ballads on microfilm. Search in the same way as the Guide to German Baroque Literature. The microfilm collection is located in the Knight Microforms Department at MICROFILM PN6110.B2 M33 1987.
- Guide to Spanish Drama of the Golden Age a collection of 86 reels covering Spanish drama 1562-1850. Search the index as above. Located in Knight Library at MICROFILM PQ6217.S63.
Books Available Online:
There are a number of institutions and corporations scanning books and putting them up online, but the best place to start is Google Books, which gives full or partial access to numerous books; full-text access is generally restricted to books published before 1930 (though this date changes according to copyright law).
To look for articles in journals, newspapers, or magazines, you will usually need to start with an index. An index will allow you to look for article citations by subject, by author, or by a few keywords which describe your topic. Most historical indexes are available only in print. However some of the main 19th- and early 20th-century indexes for English-language magazines are available online. To browse anthologies of select articles from late 18th- through early 20th-century American history, search for the title Debating Historical Issues In The Media Of The Time in the UO Library Catalog.
The following indexes, given in chronological order of coverage, are available from the library home page under Databases & Indexes or in the Knight Library Reference Section. Ask at the Reference Desk for more information. Don't limit your search to the Knight Library--remember there are branch libraries with specialized collections in architecture, the arts, law, and science. Once you find a citation, you will need to search the library catalog for the journal title and note its call number if we own it. If you don't find it in the online catalog, try the card catalog in the Current Periodicals Room.
Magazine & Journal Indexes
- 19th-Century Masterfile covers magazines 1786-1922
- Search by keyword and use Limit by Date field
- Includes contents of several 19th-century indexes such as Poole's Index to Periodical Literature (1802-1907), Stead's Index to Periodicals (1890-1902), and Index to Legal Periodical Literature (1786-1922)
- Doesn't use subject headings, so searches rely on your creativity with keywords
- The Wellesley index to Victorian periodicals, 1824-1900 KNIGHT REFERENCE AI3.W45
- A five-volume index to British magazines and journals
- Readers' Guide Retrospective covers popular and general-interest American magazines 1890-1982.
- Search by keyword and limit to a Date Range
- Results appear with the most recent article first
- Click the 'Library Owns' icon to search the UO catalog
- E-mail or save the records to keep track of your searches
- Index-Catalogue of the Library of the Surgeon-General's Office covers medical books, articles, dissertations, portraits Middle Ages-1961
- Published chronologically in five series with varying subjects and content
- Use the Index help page for search suggestions on dates, subjects, etc.
- The older the material, the rarer the source and the more difficult it will be to acquire
- International Index to Black Periodicals covers scholarly and popular periodicals from the U.S., Africa & the Caribbean 1902-present.
- Search by keyword or subject, limit by publication date
- Search publication title in UO Library Catalog
- Click the @ symbol to save records to e-mail
Magazines & Journals Full-Text
- American Periodicals Series includes the full text of American magazines 1740-1900
- Allows searching in various fields including keyword, article author, periodical title, etc.
- Article Type allows limit by editorial cartoon, ad, illustration, letter, etc.
- Allows you to e-mail record
- Internet Library of Early Journals: A Digital Library of 18th- & 19th-century Journals from Oxford University's Bodleian Library
- Each journal is browsable by year and issue number
- Currently includes Annual Register, Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Gentleman's Magazine, Notes and Queries, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, and The Builder
- JSTOR: The Scholarly Journal Archive
- Full text of core scholarly journals in the humanities and social sciences
- Search or browse by journal title or discipline
- Archives journals from the 1st volume with many beginning in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries
- See Web Resources for additional sites.
We have a few online sources for newspapers, especially:
The UO Libraries own microfilm copies of a number of newspapers including the full runs of the following:
- The Oregonian (1850-present) [See Finding News Articles: Oregon Indexes]
- The New York Times (1851-present) [See the NYT Archives or KNIGHT REFERENCE AI21.N44 for The New York Times Index]
- The Christian Science Monitor (1908-present) [See CSM Historic Archive to search]
- The Times of London (1785-present) [See KNIGHT REFERENCE AI 21 .T46 for The Times Index]
The libraries also own extensive collections of papers from 19th- and 20th-century Oregon and select papers from around the country. These papers are shelved alphabetically by the city of publication in the Microforms Department.
See the guide to Finding News Articles for information on locating articles through newspaper indexes.
UO Special Collections & University Archives are the caretakers of some of the Libraries' most unique items. This is the main location at UO where you can view primary sources in their original form. Collections include:
Start by browsing the descriptions of these collections on the pages linked above. Detailed inventories of over 100 of our manuscript collections are available from the Northwest Digital Archives. Once you have some idea of what you want to look at, more information can be found by visiting the Special Collections Reading Room. Check their web site for current hours before making a visit.
If you would like to work with Oregon Trail diaries, the papers of missionaries to China, medieval manuscripts, a children's book illustrator collection or materials about the history of the University of Oregon, Special Collections is the place to go.
Special collections outside of UO, can be found using the following sources:
- Northwest Digital Archives Find information about archival collections at sixteen archives in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana.
- Repositories of Primary Sources A listing of over 5300 websites describing holdings of manuscripts, archives, rare books, historical photographs, and other primary sources for the research scholar.
- Worldcat a union catalog to which many different libraries have submitted their records.
- Subject Collections KNIGHT REFERENCE Z731.S9 A guide to different libraries' subject strengths.
The United States government is reputed to be the largest publisher in the world. The Document Center on the 1st floor of the Knight Library holds a wealth of government information from the U.S. and beyond with particular strengths in documents from Canada and Great Britain (back to the first parliament of 1067), intergovernmental organizations (such as the European Union, the League of Nations, and the United Nations), and state and local documents from Oregon. From the mid 19th-century to around 1920 the Government Documents collection also has strong collections of documents from other states.
Among many other topics government documents could be used to research:
- Trends in invention and design through the patent record
- The condition of 19th-century asylums in New York state
- Lewis & Clark's report to Thomas Jefferson and other documents of 19th-century exploration
- U.S. relations with Native Americans
- International relations through intergovernmental and national documents
- Environmental history through scientific observations recorded by surveyors and explorers
- The post-war records of the French parliament
The Map & Aerial Photography (MAP) Collection, housed in the Document Center, contains maps, atlases and aerial photographs. Among its historical resources are Oregon Department of Transportation Historic Sets, Oregon Sanbourn Fire Insurance Maps online and USGS Topographic Maps. Currently, the Aerial Photography Collection is home to some 525,000 aerial photographs of Oregon, stretching as far back as 1925.
There are many digital library projects accessible online. The United States and Western Europe have particularly strong digital resources. A selection of sites is listed below to give an idea of the breadth of materials available.
Meta Sites for Primary Sources in History
- Internet History Sourcebook Project
A series of history primary sourcebooks by time period and region intended to serve the needs of teachers and students in college survey courses.
- UNESCO Archives Portal Primary Sources Online
Provides links to texts from all over the world.
- Online Books Page
a website from the University of Pennsylvania that facilitates access to books that are freely readable over the Internet. It also aims to encourage the development of such online books, for the benefit and edification of all.
- Begin with African History Sourcebook
- Africa South of the Sahara
a guide from Stanford University providing links to primary sources on Africa.
- Begin with East Asian History Sourcebook or Indian History Sourcebook
A collection of full-text documents and e-books about East Asian topics.
- ECCO: Eighteenth-Century Collections Online Claims to include every significant English-language and foreign-language title printed in Great Britain during the eighteenth century (1701-1800), along with thousands of important works from the Americas. Includes a variety of materials â" from books and directories, Bibles, sheet music and sermons to advertisements â" and works by many well-known and lesser-known authors. An excellent source for European history!
- EEBO: Early English Books Online
A full-text database of books and pamphlets published in England 1475-1700. Covers topics in many subject areas, including: English literature, history, philosophy, linguistics, theology, music, fine arts, education, mathematics, and science. Search by keyword, author, title, subject, illustration type, language (not just English), among other fields.
- EuroDocs: Primary Historical Documents from Western Europe
Links connect to Western European (mainly primary) historical documents that are transcribed, reproduced in facsimile, or translated. They shed light on key historical happenings within the respective countries (and within the broadest sense of political, economic, social and cultural history). The order of documents is chronological wherever possible
- ARTFL Project
A collection of online texts, bibliographies and databases intended to encourage research in French language and literature. Also includes select texts in other languages.
The digital library of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Includes texts from the middle ages through the 19th-century.
- Women Writers Online
a collection of texts by women writers in English 1400-1850.
- Begin with Internet Modern History Sourcebook
- Latin American Network Information Center
A portal to Latin American Studies websites.
United States & Canada
- American Memory
A project of the Library of Congress providing over 7 million digital items.
- Guide to Online Collections, Library and Archives Canada
- Making of America
A digital library of primary sources in 19th century American social history. A collaborative project beginning with the libraries of Cornell University and the University of Michigan.
- Digital National Security Archive
Online collection of declassified government information relating to international relations as well as domestic security issues.
- U.S. Congressional Serial Set
- Historical Records
A section of the Oregon History Project from the Oregon Historical Society.
- Oregon State Archives
Provides a variety of digital records including local government records, genealogy sources and web exhibits and projects.
- Oregon State University Archives
Accesses several collections including the Braceros in Oregon photo collection, Linus Pauling Research Notebooks and Linus Pauling & the Race for DNA.
- SODA: Southern Oregon Digital Archive
A digital library primarily from the Southern Oregon University Library's collections of federal, state, and county publications concentrating on two collections of regional materials pertaining to the Southern Oregon Bioregion and the First Nations/Tribal Collection.