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ENGL Literature Research Guide: Primary Source Materials

This guide will aid you in searching American and British literature and scholarship pertaining to American and British literary works, movements, and writers.

What are Primary and Secondary Sources?

Primary sources are any items that were produced at the time of an event. They are original sources. They tell us what people at the time were doing, thinking, and feeling. These kinds of sources may include pamphlets, newspaper articles, letters, diaries, art, photos, speeches, recordings, court documents, or anything else that was produced during the time you are studying. Historians use these items to interpret the history and create theories for why things happened the way they did.

Secondary sources are the interpretations of history that use primary sources as evidence to support various theories. These often come in the form of history books, essays, commentaries, journal articles, newspaper articles, documentaries, or other kinds of items that use the primary sources as evidence for their interpretations.

So how can you tell which is which? Here’s a few ways to figure it out:

  • Check the date: Was the item produced in the time period you are studying?
  • Evaluate the author/creator: Who created the item? Did he or she live during the time period you are studying?

If you can answer “yes” to these questions, you are probably using a primary source.

Secondary sources might be a bit easier to identify:

  • Does the item have a bibliography?
  • Does it seem more interpretive rather than an original creation?
  • Evaluate the author/creator: Who created the item? Who is the primary audience?

If you find a bibliography, reference list, footnotes or endnotes, your document is probably a secondary source. If the item seems to be an interpretation of history, rather than an eye-witness account, then it is probably a secondary source.

Of course, if you have a question about whether an item is a primary or secondary source, ask your professor or a librarian.

(Obtained from Robyn Reid's American History Research Guide)

Some Key Primary Source Databases

Below are some of the key primary source databases containing newspapers, documents, and periodicals. Some are focused on particular historical periods or groups. These are not all our primary source databases. You can find more under the Database page. Select "Primary Sources" or "Newspapers".

Key Primary Source Databases

Humanities & Theatre

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