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.

About this guide

This site lists and describes the primary source collections to which the Cornell University Library provides access to online. It's a site to browse for appropriate online collections of full text historical primary sources to search, not to begin researching a specific topic.

This guide's focus is on online collections, but a few techniques for finding primary sources in print or in archives are detailed below.

Primary Sources in Print

Many primary sources are published as critical editions and/or translations in books.

Four strategies for locating 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:
    • sources
    • diaries
    • personal narratives
    • interviews
    • letters
  3. Search for a topic in the catalog then limit by publication year using the publication year facet.
     

    Publication Year facet on the catalog

    Caveats: 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.

  4. Ask a Librarian for advice.

Virginia Cole

Virginia A. Cole, Ph.D.'s picture
Virginia A. Cole, Ph.D.
Contact:
vac11@cornell.edu
106 Olin Library
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