What makes a source primary?
In theory, primary sources are original documents and objects which were created at the time being studied. 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 format and the topic/time period and discipline.
When in doubt, always clarify with faculty.
Browse footnotes and bibliographies of books, encyclopedias, and articles for information about primary sources, titles, whether and how they've been published or their availability.
Modern books about history will often divide the bibliography into two sections: primary sources and secondary sources.
Lots of historical primary sources are published in or as books.
Strategies for locating such published primary sources:
1. Browse footnotes and bibliographies of secondary source books, encyclopedias, and articles for the titles of published primary sources.
2. Search the Library Catalog. Use the advanced search with subject terms such as:
2. Search for a topic in the Library Catalog then limit by publication year using the option to the left of a search results:
Beware: The date of publication of a book is not always an indication of whether something is a primary source. A modern, critical edition of a published primary source will have a recent date of publication. Use Ask a Librarian if you need advice.
Includes 102 document projects and archives with more than 4,050 documents, and 145,000 pages of additional full-text documents, written by some 2,200 primary authors. It includes book, film and website reviews, notes from the archives, and teaching tools.
North American women's letters and diaries : Colonial to 1950
Full-text database of letters and diaries of women who lived in North America before 1950. Browsing and searching of both the bibliographic and full-text elements provided by PhiloLogic software.
Popular culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975: Rock and roll, counterculture, peace and protest
Original archival materials are from various US & UK libraries and archives. Topics include student protests, civil rights, consumerism, and the Vietnam War. The collection includes pamphlets, letters, government files, eye witness accounts, underground magazines, visual and video materials and ephemera and memorabilia.
Smithsonian Collections Online
Primary source materials from the Smithsonian's museums, libraries, and archives, grouped into collections. Includes:
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. The database covers subjects in arts, music, and leisure, civil rights,counter-culture, law and government, mass media, new left and emerging neo-conservative movement, student activism, Vietnam War, women's movement, etc.
Everyday life & women in America: c.1800-1920
This digital collection provides access to rare primary source material on American social, cultural, and popular history from the Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History, Duke University and The New York Public Library. It comprises thousands of fully searchable images (alongside transcriptions) of monographs, pamphlets, periodicals and broadsides addressing 19th and early 20th century political, social and gender issues, religion, race, education, employment, marriage, sexuality, home and family life, health, and pastimes, emphasizing conduct of life and domestic management literature, the daily lives of women and men, and contrasts in regional, urban and rural cultures.
Access Newspaper Archive.
Coverage: 19th and 20th centuries. Primarily U.S. small town and small city newspapers. A few international titles. B&W PDFs. Mainly in English.
LIFE. 1936- .
A full-color online archive of Life magazine hosted by Google Books. Be sure to click the Search all issues checkbox!
The New York Times Index.
Covers 1851 through most recent complete year. Annual print publication.
(Olin Reference AI 21 .N56 )
An annual chronology of articles published in The New York Times by subject. Each article is briefly annotated. A unique resource when studying the development of events around a particular issue.
ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
The following newspapers are searchable individually or as a group. The default is cross-searching all titles. The New York Times (1851-2009), Wall Street Journal (1889-1995), the Washington Post (1877-1996), the Chicago Tribune (1849-1989), and the Los Angeles Times (1881-1989).
African-American newspapers: the Chicago Defender (1910-1975), New York Amsterdam News (1922-1993), and Pittsburgh Courier (1911-2002).
The Times of India (1838-2003).
Full page images: PDFs scanned from microfilm. English. Advertising content is searchable.
Women's Periodicals in the United States: Consumer Magazines.
Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995.
(Olin Reference PN 4879 .W6 1995)
One of the titles in Greenwood's Historical Guides to the World's Periodicals and Newspapers series. This title provides useful background on women's consumer magazines that can be useful primary sources in U.S. history.
Kroch Rare and Manuscript Collections
The Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections (RMC) is Cornell's principal repository of rare books, manuscripts and archival materials in history, literature, music, the arts, science, natural history, and technology more info). These collections can be searched for using the Library Catalog. Some collections have finding aids. Visit or email RMC to discuss your research interests with archivists who typically have extensive familiarity with the collections.
Published guides to collections, archives, and libraries help identify and locate manuscripts. Print and online examples are listed below.
Techniques for browsing before you go to RMC
Search the Library Catalog with a term or two related to your topic, then apply either or both of these facets which will appear in the left of your search results: