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Primary Sources in History & Classics

A guide containing general, and some specific, resources for primary source research in history and the humanities. Many links go to open-access websites anyone can use.

What's a Primary Source?

For historians, primary sources are documents or artifacts created at the time under study. Secondary sources might analyze or summarize historical events, but primary sources record history as it happens. There is no single, systematic way to locate primary sources, and you might have to get creative to find what you need. Depending on the period of time you are studying, a good primary source might be a newspaper or magazine article about a historical event, a diary or letter written by a historical figure, or a piece of media such as a painting or cartoon. This guide contains tools and techniques to locate primary sources in History and the Classics. This page has four general tips for locating primary sources which will probably work well no matter what your topic is. Tabs on the top of the page will take you to a list of resources for specific time periods and topics. 

Tip #1: Locating Primary Source Collections by Subject

Most academic libraries have collections of primary sources that history students can use in their research. Often, these are collections of sources about the same event or group of people. These books are usually cataloged with the subject heading "Sources." Locating books with the subject heading "Sources" AND a subject heading for the event or concept you are researching will usually find lots of primary source material. 

This search in JaySearch (Advanced):

Finds great primary sources, like these: 

Tip #2: Newspapers and Magazines

Newspapers and magazines make periodic records of historical events, and usually make some effort to distinguish fact from opinion, making them invaluable primary sources. Most newspapers do not make their archives available on the open web, however, the following collections of newspapers and magazines are available online: 

Additionally, Creighton has access to the following collections of newspapers:

Tip #3: Locating Primary Sources By Date

Most catalogs and journal article databases have an option to filter results by date. If you confine your search to the dates under study in your project, you will find material from that date. Academic libraries keep old books in their collections so they can be used for this type of research.

This search in JaySearch (Advanced):

Locates these books that mention Japan, and were written between the year 1900 and the year 1920.

Tip #4: National Archives and Large Repositories

There are many government and university projects that digitize and preserve old books, manuscripts, and other documents. Often, these collections are available thorugh the open web. Some very important ones are listed below. These repositories are all very large, containing millions of documents, and their contents are not always text-searchable.