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HIST 4000 - HIST 4001 History Honors (Fall 2018): Primary Sources

A guide to library research for history honors thesis research


What makes a source primary?

Primary sources are original documents and objects which were created at the time under study. Typical examples include letters, diaries, photos, newspaper articles, eyewitness accounts, autobiographies, government reports, paintings, maps, etc. In actuality, it can be more complicated and can depend on the topic/time period.

Always clarify with your professor.

What is Microfilm?


Fabulous archival primary source material has been filmed over the years, but using it will take some getting used to.  Ask for help with microfilm, microfiche, or microcards at a reference desk!

A sense of what it is and how you use it: Using Microfilm

Newspapers Tips

With the exception of the
collections listed here,
newspapers are generally
not available full text before 1980,
especially non-US papers.


But older newspapers are
often available on microfilm

and can be interlibrary loaned.
There will be no index and
using newspapers on microfilm
is hard, time-consuming work.


To locate newspapers on
microfilm, use  Worldcat: 

country = subject
newspaper* = keyword,
limit =
serial publications
format = microfilm. 
Do NOT specify dates.

Cameras in the Archives

Victorian Spy Camera Watch, by Brett Jordan. Source: Flickr.

Archival material cannot typically be checked out, interlibrary loaned, photocopied or scanned. But most archives will allow you to take photos of pages.

Tips for using a camera

Browse for Digital Primary Source Collections

Browse for Digital Primary Source Collections

Browse History: Primary Sources, a category in "Databases" at the library home page. The larger, more popular and important digital collections can be found here. All digital collections can also be discovered in the catalog.

Additional collections and techniques can be found in this in-development research guide: Primary Sources: Collections available through Cornell

Useful Tips

Useful Tips for finding printed primary sources in library catalogs

Browse footnotes and bibliographies of books, encyclopedias, and articles for information about primary sources. 

Search the Library Catalog for primary sources--both unpublished manuscripts and modern editions in print and online, sometimes in translation, of original primary sources. Use the "advanced search" with the terms for primary sources below as subjects, not keywords.

Library catalog/database terms for primary sources:

personal narratives


Sources means primary sources in a library catalog. It can mean a printed, edited, modern edition of an archival source; or it can mean a collection of excerpted, translated sources which might have the words "reader" or "documents" in the title; or it can mean a book about primary and secondary sources. All are invaluable. The footnotes and bibliography of any of them will lead to more sources.

Personal narratives is a newer library catalog subject term encompassing letters, interviews, oral histories, diaries, journals, etc.

Bibliographies are whole books devoted to a topic, usually a broader topic such as "Vietnam War" or "Early Modern Europe." They are a list of sources, often primary and secondary, generally described and annotated. Extremely helpful for getting a handle on sources and the scholarly literature on a topic.

Online Collections

Primary Source Collections Online


Evans digital edition (American Imprints) Books printed in the US during the 17th and 18th centuries.  

Eighteenth century collections online (ECCO). English-language and foreign-language books, pamphlets, broadsides, ephemera printed in the UK and the Americas, between 1701 and 1800.

Early English books online (EEBO) Covers 1450-1661.

Guide to full text of pre-1800 Imprints, British and American at Cornell

Early encounters in North America: peoples, cultures, and the environment. 1534 to 1850. The collection focuses on personal accounts and provides unique perspectives from all of the protagonists, including traders, slaves, missionaries, explorers, soldiers, native peoples, and officials, both men and women. 

American journeys eyewitness accounts of early American exploration and settlement.  Eyewitness accounts of North American exploration, from the sagas of Vikings in Canada to the diaries of mountain men in the Rockies. 

Making of America Primary sources in American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction.

American Memory: Historical Collections for the National Digital Library Primary-source collections on American history and culture, including photographs, documents, sound recordings, and motion pictures.


ARTFL Full-text online of nearly 2000 French texts seventeenth to twentieth centuries.

Gallica Includes many digitized collections of primary sources originally published in the 19th century.


The March of Time
A unique and controversial newsfilm series made 1935-1967, available in a searchable online video collection.

AccuNet/AP Multimedia Archive.  Current and historical images for the last 150 years from the Association Press.

Southeast Asia Visions is a digital collection of European travel accounts of pre-modern (1613 - 1920s) Southeast Asia.



Primary Source Newspapers


United States

American Historical Newspapers Online

ProQuest historical newspapers. The New York Times (1851-2003), the Wall Street Journal (1889-1989), the Washington Post (1877-1990), every page from every issue in PDF files.

Lexis Nexis Academic US news as of 1980.

America's Historical Newspapers, 1690-1876.  

Accessible archives: primary source material from 18th and 19th century periodicals.

Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers In development. Newspaper pages from 1880-1910

Poole's Plus: Indices to Nineteenth-Century Newspapers, Periodicals, Books and Government Documents 


More American newspapers...



Lexis Nexis Academic News from around the world as of 1980.

The Times digital archive, 1785-2006 Full-text and full-image articles from the Times of London for the years 1785-2006.

Foreign Broadcast Information Services (FBIS) daily reports, 1974-1996. Official US government English translations of radio and television transcripts and newspaper articles from around the world. Begun in the 1940s. Pre-1974 text on microfiche, see Locating FBIS Microfiche in Olin Library.

Paper of record. Historical archive of full-page newspaper images dating from the 1700's. Included are newspapers from Australia, Canada, Mexico, United Kingdom and United States of America. Many of these titles date from the early 1800s to the mid 1900s.


More international newspapers...


Primary Source Periodicals 


Periodicals Index Online (formerly PCI) Covers 1770-1993. Index. The scope is international, including journals in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and other languages.

Readers' guide retrospectiveComprehensive index of the most popular general-interest periodicals published in the United States 1890 through 1982.

Internationale Bibliographie der geistes- und sozialwissenschaftlichen Zeitschriftenliteratur: IBZ. (in print in Olin Reference)  A German index of a significant proportion of the periodicals published on the European continent. 19th century.

American Periodical Series/APS online.  1740-1900. Indexes special interest and general magazines, literary and professional journals, children’s and women’s magazines. Useful for historical advertising.


Official Sources

Official Collections

United States

ProQuest congressional publications A comprehensive collection of historic and current congressional information. Includes full text of congressional publications, hearings, finding aids, a bill tracking service, public laws and other research materials.

Foreign relations of the United States: electronic facsimile. Some years may not be available. Also available through the Department of State

U.S. Congressional serial set (Online) 1817-1980 Full text of all the reports, documents, and journals of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Still in progress.

A century of lawmaking for a new nation: U.S. Congressional documents and debates, 1774-1873 Presents records and acts of Congress from the Journals of the Continental Congress through The Congressional Globe, which ceased publication with the Forty-second Congress in 1873.

Finding Guide to U.S. Government Documents at Cornell

The making of modern law: legal treatises 1800-1926.  The Nineteenth Century and Twentieth Century Legal Treatises microfilm collections and 21,000 Anglo-American legal works including casebooks, local practice manuals, form books, works for lay readers, pamphlets, letters, speeches as well as material that isn't narrowly legal.



Research Guide for UN Documents at Cornell

House of Commons Parliamentary Papers (1688-to present) Full text with detailed subject indexing.

British Records on the Atlantic World Consists of 12 collections of manuscript material found in England.  Includes materials such as journals, correspondence, official records, personal papers, and printed books from over a two hundred year period, all related to British involvement in the Atlantic region, including both Africa and the Americas.  It has a wealth of information about Britain’s colonization, commercial, missionary and even literary relations with Africa and the Americas. Alongside the records of Liverpool merchants involved in the infamous Triangular Trade, there are those of slave plantation owners, of early Anglican missionaries, and of naval and customs officials.

British History Online is the digital library containing some of the core printed primary and secondary sources for the medieval and modern history of the British Isles.  Included are the House of Commons Journal and House of Lords Journal

Finding British Sessional Papers at Cornell

The making of modern law: legal treatises 1800-1926.  The Nineteenth Century and Twentieth Century Legal Treatises microfilm collections and 21,000 Anglo-American legal works including casebooks, local practice manuals, form books, works for lay readers, pamphlets, letters, speeches as well as material that isn't narrowly legal.



Kroch Rare and Manuscript Collections
The Rare and Manuscript Division is located in an underground addition attached to Olin Library. It houses manuscripts from a variety of periods and several special collections.


Archives typically have websites with basic information and contacts if not guides to and catalogs of their collections. Major archives and repositories generally publish guides in print which often can be found through a keyword search (using the name of the archive) in the classic catalog or Worldcat.

Selected print and online guides:

Archive Finder Information about primary source materials from manuscript repositories in the United States and the UK.

National Archives and Records Administration 

British archives : a guide to archive resources in the United Kingdom. 3rd ed. (Olin Reference CD1040 .F75 1995)

Guide to Finding [Medieval] Manuscripts

Web Accessibility Assistance