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American History: Since 1877: Find Primary Sources

Research guide for students taking American History: Since 1877

Finding Primary Sources in the Library Catalog

When you are searching for primary sources in the library catalog, there are a few subject terms you can use to find them. Here's what you do. Change the drop-down option box to "Subject Words." Then type in "sources." Other subject terms to try include:

  • personal narratives
  • diaries
  • letters
  • photographs

Use these terms along with the other subjects you are studying.

Other kinds of primary sources include newspapers, magazines, or documents that were produced at the time you are studying. 

What are Primary Sources?

Historians (for the most part) try to understand the context of events– what REALLY happened? In order to understand the context, they look at primary 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.

Primary Sources: Best Bets

New York Times Historical

Find news, editorials, letters to the editor, obituaries, birth and marriage announcements, historical photos, stock photos, and advertisements. Coverage dates: 1851 - 2007.

New York Times Logo

American History 1493-1945

Contains primary source documents from the earliest settlers to the mid-twentieth century. Coverage dates: 1493-1945.

Logo for American History 1493-1945

HathiTrust

This digital collection includes books and primary source documents from a variety of sources, including Google, the Internet Archive, and libraries around the world. Coverage dates: 19th - 20th Century

HathiTrust Logo

American Periodicals

Includes special interest and general magazines, literary and professional journals, children's and women's magazines, and many other historically-significant periodicals. Coverage dates: 1740-1900.

American Periodicals Logo

Chicago Defender

A leading newspaper of the black community that includes news articles, photos, advertisements, classified ads, obituaries, cartoons, and more.  Coverage dates: 1910-1975

Chicago Defender Logo

Slavery, Abolition, & Social Justice

Primary and secondary sources on slavery, abolition, and social justice. Coverage dates: 1490-2007

Logo for Slavery, Abolition, & Social Justice

Primary Sources

General American History

19th Century (1800s)

20th Century (1900s)

Newspaper Collections

US Newspapers by Region

Eastern Papers

Southern Papers

Midwestern Papers (including Texas)

Western Papers

Magazine Collections

Prominent National Magazines

What are primary sources? (video)