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A Guide to Understanding Primary Sources


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Kristina Claunch
Library (NGL) Room 223G

Finding Primary Sources in the 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databases for electronic versions of primary documents, go to the History database list and focus on the tab for "Historical Documents."

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.

Some Major Published Series of Primary Sources

This does NOT even begin to include all printed document collections in the library, but may provide an easy starting point for some topics. 

Click on these links to view all the volumes in these series and get call numbers to find them in the library.

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 tutorial video on this page).


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"!) . 

Episode 3: Finding Primary Source Collections with Google Advanced Search


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