Useful Tips

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Search the Library Catalog for primary sources--both unpublished manuscripts and modern editions in print and online, sometimes in translation, of original primary sources.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 guided keyword search with truncated terms such as:

  • source*
  • diar*
  • personal narrative*
  • interview*
  • letter*
  • correspondence

What is Microfilm?

When you can't find published primary sources, you may be able to get a hold of electronic or microfilm copies

Microfilm reel

Much 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

Microfilm reader in use

Cameras in the Archives

Victorian Spy Camera in a Pocket Watch

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

Archival material cannot typically be checked out or interlibrary loaned, and usually not photocopied or scanned (except by a staff member, and for a fee). However, many archival institutions will allow you to take photos of pages.

Tips for using a camera in the archives

African-American History

Black Studies Center:

  • Chicago Defender (1910-1975)
  • Daily Defender (1956-1975)
  • New York Amsterdam News (1922-1994)
  • Pittsburgh Courier (1911-2002)

Electronic resources

This is just a sampling of the many, many primary resources available in electronic form. In Find Databases, there's a category called history: primary sources. Other subject searches in the catalog include:

  • Sixties : primary documents and personal narratives 1960-1974
  • Cuban heritage digital collection
  • Literature online : the home of literature and criticism
  • New York State documents
  • PAIS International (public policy documents)

Here are some examples:

Primary Sources in Detail

Much more detail on finding primary sourcesWhite sleeved arm stretched over a table with a fountain pen in hand poised over a blank page



Image: Thomas Smillie (1843-1917). [Untitled], 1890.
Cyanotype photograph.
Source: Smithsonian Institution Archives on Flickr Commons

US Government

The U.S. government commissions and publishes a number of images.

U.S Congressional Serial Set (Readex)
This is the database of digitized texts from the bound, sequentially numbered volumes of all the reports, documents, and journals of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Upon completion, the digital version of the Serial set will consist of over 12 million pages. The database is searchable by subject, publication category, standing committee author, and other parameters. Cornell also holds print versions of the entire run. As of February 2009, the following years are covered online:
15th Congress - 89th Congress, 2nd session through Serial Set no. 12749, 1817 - 1966
Serial Set Volumes: 1 - 12749

You can limit searches to results that contain tables, maps, and/or illustrations. The list of search results should indicate which results contain maps, color maps, tables, and/or illustrations.

Images may be downloaded as pdf, bi-tonal (black & white) pdf, or tiff. Some jpg downloads are also offered.

Examples of material found in the Serial Set include reports of geological surveys, agricultural reports, portraits, disaster reports, contested election materials, and much, much more.

Electronic resources: News & Journal Articles

This is just a sampling of the many, many primary resources available in electronic form.

Historical International News

International News Services:

Keesing's World News Archive. Coverage note: Online full text coverage 1940 to date; online indexing, 1931- .

Keesing's World News Archive is the web-based version of Keesing's Record of World Events (1987- , Olin stacks + D 410 .K26) and Keesing's Contemporary Archives (1940-1986, Olin stacks + D 410 .K26). It is an authoritative monthly digest of worldwide political, diplomatic and economic affairs.

See also Nexis Uni.

International Newspapers:

Times Digital Archive offers online, full-text access to the Times of London from 1785 through 2006. This is the longest run of indexing and access available for any newspaper.

Examples of major international newspapers with separate print indexes:

  • Times, London. London: Times Newspapers Ltd. 

(Olin stacks AI 21 .T58; see also the online index in Times Digital Archive above) 

The Annual Index began, with much more detailed entries, in 1906, the title changing to the Official Index in 1914. The Times of London is located in the microfilm area, B Level, Olin Library (Film 308).

  • Le Monde. Paris: Le Monde, indexed 1944/1945-1951, 1958, 1965-1968, and 1985- .

(Olin stacks AI 21 .M741 +)

Le Monde (Film 481) has been published since 1944. It continues a newspaper called Temps (Film 2663), which began publication in 1861. A searchable full-text version of Le Monde is also available in the Electronic Text Center strating in 1995; ask at Olin Reference.


ICON: International Coalition on Newspapers: Titles Preserved through ICON. Bibliographic information only. List of international newspapers preserved on microfilm. Linked CRL catalog includes specific holdings. Titles available from CRL via ILL. ICON's searchable union list of international newspapers; good historical data with preservation status and holdings information.