Main Content

Primary Sources


This guide will help you identify and locate primary sources, both in the library and on the Internet. It is intended as a starting point and not as a comprehensive list of tools. Contact our reference librarians if you need additional assistance with your research.


What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are original records that were either created at the time historical events occurred, or well after those events in the form of memoirs and oral histories. Primary sources may include letters, manuscripts, diaries, journals, newspapers, speeches, interviews, memoirs, documents produced by government agencies, photographs, audio recordings, moving pictures, video recordings, research data, and objects or artifacts such as works of art or ancient roads, buildings, tools, and weapons.

These sources provide the raw material necessary for understanding historical figures, events, cultures, literature, and works of art. By presenting a first-person perspective on events and people in history, primary sources offer a window into the past. Researchers use them in conjunction with secondary sources, which are essentially previous interpretations of primary sources by other scholars.


Primary vs. Secondary Sources

It is not always easy to discern the difference between primary, secondary, and tertiary resources. This chart may help to clarify the distinction. The definition of "primary sources" varies across different fields of study. Ask your professor if you have any questions about what will be accepted as a primary source for a particular assignment.


Return to top


Finding Primary Sources in Libraries

Geisel Library Catalog
Search the catalog for published versions of primary sources. To find primary sources, try a Keyword search that combines the name of a person, group, or event with words such as: memoirs, diaries, correspondence, papers, personal narratives, or sources. For example:

  • George Washington and correspondence
  • Civil War and letters
  • Indians and treaties
  • Crusades and sources
  • Franz Kafka and diaries

Here is a list of selected primary sources available in microfilm/microfiche format on the Lower Level of Geisel Library.

Use WorldCat to search for primary sources in the collections of libraries throughout the country and world. For the best results, combine keyword searches on your topic with Subject searches on terms such as sources, memoirs, diaries, correspondence, papers, personal narratives, or pictorial works. If you find a book of interest, click on the title and then click the "Request via Interlibrary Loan" link to have the book delivered to Geisel Library for your use.


Return to top


Finding Primary Sources in Databases

Geisel Library subscribes to several databases that contain primary source material.

American Slave Narratives
Read the complete interviews of thousands of former slaves, collected here. They can be searched by keyword or browsed by topic, names, place, or year of birth.

ARTFL Project
This is a searchable collection of mainly French-language texts that range from classic works of French literature to non-fiction writing, primarily from the 18th to 20th centuries.

Early American Newspapers 1690-1876
This text-searchable database has cover-to-cover reproductions of hundreds of historic American newspapers, including 37 from New Hampshire.

New York Times - Historical

This database provides full-text access to every article in the New York Times, from 1851 to four years ago.

Nineteenth-Century British Pamphlets
This collection (when completed) will consist of over 20,000 British pamphlets, which were an important medium for debate of political, social, and economic issues during the 19th century.

Times of London Digital Archive
This database provides full-text access to every issue of The Times (London) newspaper from 1785 through 1985, except for Sunday editions.


Return to top


Finding Primary Sources on the Internet

Use a search engine such as Google when you are researching a narrow topic or trying to locate a specific document. Using specific rather than broad terms will yield better results. As when searching the catalog, combine keywords representing your subject with keywords such as "letters", "correspondence", "diaries", or "government documents". Be sure to evaluate whether the website seems reliable and authoritative.

Digital Collections
This webpage includes a list of some of the best primary source websites, hand-picked by our librarians and organized by subject.

Google Book Project
Google has digitized millions of books and made them accessible through their search engine. Books not under copyright (including most published before 1922) can be read in their entirety, making this website a great resource for primary source material from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Use the Advanced Search to limit your results to "full view only".

Subject Guide
Check the Geisel Library subject guide for your area of study, which may list additional primary source websites worth exploring.


Return to top


Citing Primary Sources

In your bibliography or "works cited" list, it is important to provide complete citation information for your primary source. If the primary source was found in a published book, you should include the full citation info for both the document itself and the book in which you found it. Similarly, for documents found in online collections, include the citation info for both the document itself and the website where it is housed (including its URL).

The best way to learn how to cite special types of primary sources is to consult the handbook for your citation style (MLA, Chicago, etc.). These handbooks are available at the Reference Desk. For further help with citing primary source materials, see the following:

Citing Primary Sources (Library of Congress)
Examples of how to cite various types of primary sources (films, newspapers, photographs, texts, and other sources) in both MLA and Chicago style.

Citing Sources
Geisel Library's guide to citing research materials, with links to websites that provide examples of how to cite different types of sources in the major citation styles.


Return to top