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HIS 378: Derr: Searching for Primary Sources

Research guide for HIS 378

Searching for Primary Resources Using Library Resources


Often one of the most challenging parts of writing your research paper is finding appropriate primary sources.  The library has a plethora of primary source databases but most are focused on America and Europe.  Of course the Internet is, of course, a rich source of primary source materials but as with all Internet searching the onus of vetting sources falls on you.  I provide a few recommendations below for using Internet sources.

Using the Library Catalog:

When searching in the Library Catalog do a keyword Boolean search and add the word “sources” to your search. Example:
“Thomas Jefferson” and sources

Other keywords to try:

personal narratives

Example searches:
civil war
personal narratives
slave narratives

NOTE: You can also use these techniques in WorldCat

Using Library Databases:

The library subscribes to a number of databases that include primary source materials. At this point, most of the primary resources found in the library's databases are focused on American history. For non-American history, students may want to try searching for their topics on the web.

The library has a subject page with all its databases that contain primary source documents.

Try some of our specialized databases such as the Historical New York Times, Early American Imprints, Early American Newspapers, Pennsylvania Gazette, African American newspapers, Women and Social Movements.

Database Name  Focus Content Time Period

Accessible Archives

America Includes African-American Newspaper Collection, American and WW I, American County histories, the Civil War Newspapers, Godey's Lady's Book, The Liberator, the PA Gazette (America's first "paper of record"), and other American primary source documents 1700s - early 1900s
African American Studies Center America Includes articles, ebooks, and primary sources related to the African American experience. 1619- current
AP Images International Image database, includes complete archive of AP photos.  Over 3 million images 1840 - current
Digital National Security Archives America Declassified US gov't documents relating to US foreign policy.  Major collections include Afghanistan, Cuban Missile crisis, El Salvador, Irangate, Phillipines 1945 - current
Early English Books Online United Kingdom Contains digital facsimile page images of virtually every work printed in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and British North America from 1473-1700 1473-1700
Films on Demand America Includes archival news footage and films from American history.  Examples: Nixon's address on Vietnam, WPA films, old TV commercials, WW II footage. 1919 - present
Gale Virtual Reference Library Mostly American Speeches, letters, legislation, treaties, journal entries 19th and 20th centuries
HarpWeek America Popular 19th century news and social magazine Late 19th and early 20th century
KLN Digital Collections Pennsylvania Locally digitized collections includes the Kutztown Patriot, Kutztown postcards, Keystone Mostly late 19th and 20th century
ProQuest Historical Newspapers America

Search the full text of the following historical newspapers:

Pittsburgh Post Gazette
Philadelphia Inquirer
New York Times
Wall St Journal

1786 - 2016
Readex Digital Archives America Includes historical newspaper collection, Early American imprints, and broadsides/ephemera collections 1600s - current
Women and Social Mov'ts America Includes articles, ebooks, and primary sources related to the experience of women in America. 1600 - 2000
Victorian Popular Culture UK and US Contains a wide range of source material relating to popular entertainment in America, Britain and Europe. 1779 - 1930

Searching for Primary Sources using the Web

Using the Web for finding primary sources. The free web is one of the richest sources of primary source material but it requires the user to carefully evaluate what they find.

Review this recommended Web Guide before you start your search: Using Primary Sources on the Web. An excellent web guide by the American Library Association includes search strategies, recommended resources, and evaluation tips


Try a search on your topic. Type in your topic include the words “primary source”

Example: “roman religion” “primary sources”

Also try limiting your results to .edu, .org, OR .gov web sites. For example:

"roman religion" "primary sources" site:edu

Some Recommended Sites

Internet Ancient History Sourcebook
Excellent outline of primary sources arranged by topic however the site is not regularly updated, recommend using as an outline and copy and pasting titles and doing  a new search to find source.

WWW Virtual Library: History Index
List of recommended web sites on all aspects of history

HathiTrust Digital Library
Includes thousands of public domain resources

Library of Congress Digital Collections