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STS/BSOC/HIST 4131 Comparative Environmental History: The Twentieth-Century World (Fall 2016): Primary Sources

A guide to library research


What makes a source primary?

Primary sources are original documents and objects which were created at the time. 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.

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Search the Library Catalog for primary sources--both unpublished manuscripts and modern editions in print and online, sometimes in translation, of original primary sources.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

Published Primary Source Online Collections


The Sixties: primary documents and personal narratives 1960-1974. Diaries, letters, autobiographies and other memoirs, written and oral histories, manifestos, government documents, memorabilia, and scholarly commentary on the arts, music, and leisure, civil rights, counter-culture, etc.

Historical Magazines & Periodicals

Primary Source Magazine (Periodical) Articles

Readers' guide retrospective. A database containing comprehensive indexing of the most popular general-interest periodicals published in the United States. The complete database covers the years 1890 through 1982. Does not include full text. Use "Get it Cornell" links to find the periodical.

Historical Newspapers

Primary Source Newspaper Articles

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.

More American Historical Newspapers Online...


International Newspapers

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

Times Digital Archive Full-text of Times of London from 1785 to 1985.  

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...

Official Documents

Official Primary Sources

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.

ProQuest Congressional  Indexes information produced by or pertaining to the United States Congress from 1789 to the present. Provides full text for many titles, generally from the early 1990’s to the present. Includes bills, laws, legislative histories, committee prints, House and Senate documents and reports, the Congressional Record, Code of Federal Regulations, and Federal Register. Includes full text of Congressional Research Service reports, 1916-present; full text of Congressional hearings, 1824-2003; full text of Committee Prints, 1830-2003; and full text of the Serial Set Collection with Maps, 1789-1969. For a complete description of contents, coverage, and update frequency, consult the online Help section.

More: A guide to finding U.S. Government Documents at Cornell

House of Commons Parliamentary Papers (HCPP). Includes over 200,000 House of Commons sessional papers from 1715 to the present, with supplementary material back to 1688. It offers page images and searchable full text for each paper, along with detailed indexing.

More: Guide to UN Documents

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