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Historical Primary Sources: Cornell's Subscription Databases: Home

A guide to digital, print, and archival historical primary sources available at Cornell


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.

Useful tips

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.

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 research a specific topic.

This guide's focus is on online collections.  Techniques for finding primary sources in print or in archives are detailed below.

Primary Sources in Print

Lots of historical primary sources are published 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:

personal narratives


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.

Distinguishing Results

Virginia Cole

Virginia A. Cole, Ph.D.'s picture
Virginia A. Cole, Ph.D.
106 Olin Library
Cornell Votes! Every Person. Every Voice.
Library Guide