The History Research Process


Profile Photo
Kristina Claunch
Library (NGL) Room 223G

Primary Sources in Library Databases

To search databases for electronic versions of primary documents, go to the History database list and focus on the tab for "Historical Documents."

Which databases to search depends on your topic. ClickDatabase information icon beside a database for more details. Read the database description and think critically about whether it could support your research in terms of time, place, and topic.

CAUTION: Some databases contain both primary and secondary source content. Always pay attention to when and by whom a document was written to distinguish primary sources.

Finding Primary Sources in the Catalog

This video will give a quick demonstration of several tricks to help you locate primary sources in the library catalog.

1. Use the keyword "sources" in the subject row

2. Along with your topic keywords, add the keywords "documents OR documentary"

3. Along with your topic keywords, add keywords for specific kinds of sources (correspondence, diary, manuscripts, etc. - just separate them all with OR)

4. Click on Exact Search, Enter a person's name (backwards), and click subject. Browse for and click on subjects that include words like correspondence, manuscripts, sources, etc.

Finding Primary Sources Online

Many universities, government agencies, and historical associations provide digital libraries of primary sources on the Internet. Ask your professor to confirm, but websites like these are usually allowed.

Check out our list of online, primary-source collections in U.S. History and Texas History, or search for more digital collections with Google Advanced Search (see the video on the right).


If you are researching a certain city, state, or region, look for major digital collections created by that city or state.

  • Try web searches for a city or state digital library, such as "Illinois digital library" or "Chicago digital library."
  • Search for the state library and archives commission (for instance, "Texas State Library and Archives") to look for major state-wide digitization initiatives.
  • Identify major universities in the area (for instance, the University of Houston if you're studying the greater Houston area) and check out those university websites to look for digital collections that might be helpful (tip: start at their library's page and look for phrases like "digital collections"!) . 


Here are some key terms that indicate a website might provide you with a digital archive:

  • digital archive
  • digital library
  • digital collection
  • digital repository
  • virtual archive
  • virtual library
  • virtual collection
  • online archive
  • online library
  • online collection

Terms like those listed above can be paired with keywords describing your topic and used in Google Advanced Search to discover digital archives; it is also very useful to limit your Google Advanced Search to a .edu or .gov domain. Watch the video on the right for a demonstration!

Note that a "digital exhibit" is not the same as a digital archive. You may find some useful primary sources in an exhibit, but it is important not to rely too heavily on these. Learn more.

A Few Major (General) Digital Archives in U.S. History

Find LOTS more in the SHSU Library's Guide to "U.S. History Primary Source Collections Online." Note: that guide may also contain some online exhibits, so be sure to distinguish those from the archives.

A Few Major (General) Digital Archives in World History

Find LOTS more in the SHSU Library's Guide to "World History Primary Source Collections Online." Note: that guide may also contain some online exhibits, so be sure to distinguish those from the archives.

Video: Finding Primary Source Collections with Google Advanced Search


Newton Gresham Library | (936) 294-1614 | (866) NGL-INFO | Ask a Question | Share a Suggestion

Sam Houston State University | Huntsville, Texas 77341 | (936) 294-1111 | (866) BEARKAT
© Copyright Sam Houston State University | All rights reserved. | A Member of The Texas State University System