What is a Primary Source?

Though definitions vary depending on the discipline in which you are working, a primary source is essentially any record or artifact from a given era that provides original documentary evidence of the time. It is like a snapshot of a given experience, taken by someone who was there. Secondary sources, such as books or articles, often draw heavily from primary sources, such as letters, diaries, or interviews, to make representations or interpretations of a period under study.

What Are Some Examples of Primary Sources?

A few examples of primary sources include:

  • diaries
  • government documents
  • letters
  • newspaper and magazine articles (from the time period under study)
  • photographs

How Do I Find Primary Sources in an Archive?

The Society of American Archivists defines an archives as: Materials created or received by a person, family, or organization, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of their enduring value. Archives can also refer to the division within an organization responsible for maintaining the organization's records of enduring value, or a building or institution that houses such records.

To find materials in an archives, researchers rely on Finding Aids. A finding aid is like a table of contents to an entire archival collection, providing information on the history of the materials and their current organization. For instance, the finding aid to the Emily Dickinson Collection at Amherst College describes how the manuscripts moved from Dickinson's home to our Archives, as well as how they are currently organized in boxes and folders for easy access.

To identify primary sources held in the archives of the Five Colleges, use the Five College Archives & Manuscripts database. Bear in mind, that this database searches the text of the finding aids, not the contents of the collections themselves. A finding aid may only tell you that a certain person or topic is included in an archival collection, not detailed information describing individual letters or documents and their specific contents.

To find archival materials beyond the Five Colleges, search ArchiveGrid. ArchiveGrid is a new system that enables you to search finding aids and other catalog information from hundreds of collections across the US and around the world. When searching for a particular person, it is often useful to put their name in quotation marks (e.g. "David Foster Wallace"). In addition to finidng aids, ArchiveGrid does include records for individual letters and manuscripts.

Another handy way to determine where you can find archival materials related to a particular person or topic is to check the sources listed in a biography or other secondary work on your topic. Often the acknowledgements section of a secondary resource will highlight the most significant archival collections used by the author.

How Do I Find Primary Sources in a Library Catalog?

Scholars and publishers compile collections of primary sources that can be found in library catalogs, such as the Amherst catalog, the Five Colleges catalog, or WorldCat. Examples include published manuscripts, diaries, or letters of an individual (In Lincoln's Hand: His Original Manuscripts), or sources related to a particular topic (The Nazi Concentration Camps, 1933-1939: A Documentary History).

Like every other item in the catalog, these collections are assigned standardized subject headings or subheadings, making them easier to find. To locate primary sources in a library catalog, it is best to use the "Advanced Search" feature, with keywords for your topic in the first search box, and the subject headings for the kind of source you are looking for in the second search box (make sure the two boxes are connected with the "and" dropdown, so you are searching for both concepts).


Primary sources subjects 1

You can search for a variety of primary sources by inserting "or" between each type of source.



Once you find an item that looks appropriate, you can identify the relevant subject headings to modify your search, or click on the link to see if there are other works with the same subjects. For example, having found a relevant book in the Amherst catalog using the above search terms, you would find the following subject headings:


Clicking on the first link takes you to a list of subject headings that you can click on to find more sources:


Common sub-headings for primary sources include:

  • Archival Resources
  • Archives
  • Correspondence [note: use this if you are looking for letters]
  • Diaries
  • Interviews
  • Notebooks, sketchbooks
  • Personal narratives
  • Photographs
  • Pictorial works
  • Sources
  • Speeches

For a more exhaustive list, with examples, see MIT Libraries' page on primary source subject headings. You can copy and paste the following into a search box as "Subject Keywords" [the 'or' between terms allows the catalog to search for any of the terms, not all of them]:
"archival resources" or archives or correspondence or diaries or interviews or notebooks or sketchbooks or "personal narratives" or photographs or "pictorial works" or sources or speeches 

How do I Find Primary Sources in Library Databases?

The library subscribes to a variety of databases composed largely of primary sources. These will often provide ways of either searching by keyword, or browsing in ways that attempt to replicate how they would be experienced in their original format. Though not comprehensive, the following list includes many of our primary source databases.

Digitized Archival Collections

  • American Slavery Collection (1820-1922) This digital edition of the American Antiquarian Society's holdings of slavery and abolition materials delivers more than 3,500 works published over the course of more than 100 years.
  • Amherst College Digital Collections - This repository holds over one hundred thousand digitized art works, photographs, manuscripts, books, and other media from the Archives & Special Collections and the library’s Art & Architecture Collection.
  • Archives of Sexuality & Gender: LGBTQ History and Culture Since 1940 (1940-2014)
    Composed of primary sources, such as newsletters, organizational papers, government documents, manuscripts, and pamphlets, focusing on social, political, health, and legal issues impacting LGBTQ communities around the world.
  • Black Studies Center (25,000 BC to present) Black Studies Center is a tool that supports research, teaching, and learning in Black Studies covering aspects of the black experience such as history, literature, political science, sociology, philosophy, and religion.
  • Crime, Punishment and Popular Culture (1790-1920)
    Composed of over two million pages of trial transcripts, police and forensic reports, detective novels, newspaper accounts, true crime literature, and related ephemera, focusing on nineteenth-century criminal history, law, literature, and justice.
  • Electronic Enlightenment (18th century)
    Full text of over 53,000 letters and documents from the best critical editions.
  • Making of the Modern World (1450-1914)
    Primary source materials (including broadsides and pamphlets, serials, and monographs) tracing British and US economic history from 1450-1914
  • Mass Observation Online Primary source collection containing original manuscript and typescript papers created and collected by the Mass Observation organization, as well as printed publications, photographs and interactive features.
  • North American Indian Thought and Culture 
    Provides access to autobiographies, biographies, Indian publications, oral histories, personal writings, photographs, drawings, and audio files that were previously unpublished. It includes fifty-four volumes from the 18th and 19th centuries with many prominent writers and nations covered in depth, in addition to photographs from Edward Curtis.
  • Oxford Islamic Studies Online - Interdisciplinary reference content and commentary, plus Quranic materials, primary sources, images, maps, and timelines. Includes Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World and other core reference works on Islam.
  • Sixties: Primary Documents and Personal Narratives (1960-1974) Resource brings the 1960s alive through diaries, letters, autobiographies and other memoirs, written and oral histories, manifestos, government documents, memorabilia, and scholarly commentary.
  • Slavery, Abolition and Social Justice (1490-2007) Thousands of pamphlets, books, paintings, maps and images documenting the varieties and legacy of slavery, the social justice perspective, and the continued existence of slavery today.
  • South Asia Archive 
    A fully searchable digital archive providing online access to documents ranging from the mid-18th to the mid-20th Century.
  • Stalin Digital Archive - Primary source materials from Stalin's personal papers and monographs on communism. Includes Russian State Archive of Social and Political History documents and the Annals of Communism series.
  • Vietnam War and American Foreign Policy (ProQuest History Vault) (1960-1975) A collection of primary sources covering everything from early U.S. involvement in the region up to the final resolution of the war at the Paris Peace Talks and the evacuation of U.S. troops in 1973

Government Documents

  • American State Papers (1789-1838) Full-image database of legislative and executive documents of Congress. Continued by U.S. Congressional Serial Set
  • Ancestry Library - Access to more than 1.2 billion names, primary source documents, census records, and images and a variety of genealogical and historical research features.
  • Confidential Print. Middle East (1839-1969) The collection covers Middle Eastern history from 1839-1969; countries included are: Afghanistan, Egypt, Sudan, Persia, Suez Canal, Turkey, Jordan, Arabia, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Syria. The series preserves all of the most important papers generated by the British Foreign and Colonial Offices.
  • Congressional Publications - Index to U.S. congressional material, some full text.
  • Documents on British Policy Overseas - Documents on British Policy Overseas provides users with access to a wide range of primary source documents from Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, shedding light on diplomatic history throughout the twentieth century.
  • FBIS: Federal Broadcast Information Service (1974-1996) News in translation (by the CIA) from radio, television, and newspapers around the world.
  • Foreign Office Files for the Middle East (1971-1981) This resource addresses the policies, economies, political relationships and significant events of every major Middle East power. Conflicts such as the Arab-Israeli War, the Lebanese Civil War and the Iranian Revolution are examined, as are the military interventions and peace negotiations carried out by regional and foreign powers.
  • HeinOnline - Full-text legal materials back to volume 1, historic English law and more. (Alumni access)
  • Social Explorer (1790 to present) Access to data from the U.S. Census, American Community Survey, religious congregations, and other sources, with options to create thematic and interactive maps and reports.
  • U.S. Congressional Serial Set (1817-1976) Reports, documents and journals of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Preceded by American State Papers.

Historical Newspapers and Periodicals

  • African American Newspapers (Readex) (1827-1998) Provides access to approximately 270 U.S. newspapers from more than 35 states and chronicles a century and a half of the African American experience.
  • American Antiquarian Society (AAS) historical periodicals collection (1684-1912) A comprehensive collection of American periodicals published between 1684 and 1912. Subject coverage includes: advertising, health, women's issues, science, the history of slavery, industry and professions, religious issues, culture and the arts, and more.
  • America's Historical Newspapers (1690-1980) Searchable archive of American newspapers including Early American Newspapers (1690-1922), Caribbean Newspapers (1718-1876), and Hispanic American Newspapers (1808-1980).
  • American Periodicals Series (1740-1940) Digitized reproductions of more than 1,100 18th and 19th century newspapers and periodicals
  • British Library Newspapers
    Searchable archive of regional and local British newspapers published between the mid-eighteenth and mid-twentieth centuries.
  • British Periodicals (1600s-1900s) Searchable full text of hundreds of British periodicals from the late 17th century to the early 20th, with high-resolution facsimile page images.
  • Caribbean Newspapers (1718-1876) Fully searchable digitized collection of 18th- and 19th-century Caribbean newspapers, including 66 titles from 22 islands
  • Hispanic American Newspapers (1808-1980) Full-text collection of Spanish-language and bilingual newspapers printed across the U.S. during the 19th and 20th centuries.
  • Historical Chinese Newspapers - English-language newspapers published in China. It spans 1832-1953, with most content from 1910-1940.
  • Historical Newspapers (ProQuest) - Combined search of the historic Boston Globe, Chicago Defender, Chinese Newspaper Collection, Los Angeles Times, New York Amsterdam News, New York Times, Times of India, and Washington Post.
  • Latin American Newspapers (1805-1922) Provides more than thirty-five fully searchable newspapers published in Central and South American between 1805-1922.
  • The Times Digital Archive
    The Times Digital Archive is an online, full-text facsimile of more than 200 years of the Times, with every page of every issue from 1785 to 2012.
  • Women's Magazine Archive - A searchable archive of leading women's interest magazines, dating from the 19th century through to the 21st.
  • Zasshi kiji sakuin shusei detabesu (1868 to present) Index to periodical articles published in Japanese, including those in former Japanese colonies, and including local periodicals not present in many other indexes.

Historical Printed Materials

  • Early American Imprints, Series I (1639-1800) Books, pamphlets, broadsides and other imprints listed in the renowned bibliography by Charles Evans.
  • Early American Imprints. Series II, Shaw-Shoemaker (1801-1819) Books, pamphlets, broadsides and other imprints listed in the distinguished bibliography by Ralph R. Shaw and Richard H. Shoemaker.
  • EEBO: Early English Books Online (1473-1700) Full text of over 125,000 titles listed in Pollard & Redgrave's Short-Title Catalogue (1475-1640), Wing's Short-Title Catalogue (1641-1700), and the Thomason Tracts (1640-1661).
  • Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) (1701-1800) Page images and full-text searching for more than 136,000 key English- and foreign-language titles printed in Great Britain during the 18th century, based on the English Short Title Catalogue.
  • Nineteenth Century Collections Online (NCCO) (1780-1925) Full-text, searchable content from a broad range of 19th-century sources in literature, politics, theater, music, religion, maps, science, and childhood

How Do I Find Primary Sources on the Internet?

Most archives make their finding aids available online where they are searchable by search engines such as Google or Bing. When searching the internet for archival materials add the terms "Papers" or "Archives" or "Finding Aid" or "Digital Collections" to your search. For example: "David Foster Wallace" AND "Finding Aid".

Much like the bibliographies of secondary sources, Wikipedia entries often include links to archival holdings. Check the "References" or "External Links" sections of any Wikipedia page for links to archival resources or finding aids.