Skip to Main Content

Library DIY

Primary sources

A primary source is an item that was created during the period being studied and documents in some way what is being studied.

Examples of primary sources include:

Newspaper accounts Letters, diaries and scrapbooks
Government documents
(research data, statistics, congressional transcripts, laws)
Personal accounts, autobiographies, memoirs
Images and museum artifacts Speeches
Data from scientific experiments Oral histories


If you are looking for historical primary sources, here are three strategies:

1. Search the Library Search box. If you are looking for primary sources on a certain topic, use the Advanced Search with subjects.

  • On the first line, leave the menu on Any, enter keyword(s) that describe your topic.
  • On the second line, change the drop-down menu to Subject and select one of the subject headings that describes primary sources. When you use multiple subject headings, put an OR between them.
  • Under Show Content Type, select what type of sources you are looking for: manuscripts, audio, pamphlet, etc.
  • Make sure you check the box Include results from outside your library's collection, so you will get results that are outside of Davenport's collection as well.

For example, you could search for medieval as a keyword and sources OR documents OR personal narratives as subject headings.

  • To find any kind of primary source -Sources OR documents (medieval sources, Civil War documents, papal sources);
  • Personal accounts, autobiographies, or memoirs - Personal narratives OR Autobiography OR memoir (Pearl Harbor personal narratives, Battle of the Bulge memoir, autobiography World War II);
  • Letters - Correspondence OR letters (Civil War correspondence, French Revolution letters);
  • Diaries - Diary (Civil War diary, woman diary France);
  • Oral history - Interview OR oral history OR speeches (Cold War interview, Japanese internment oral history, Malcolm X speeches);
  • Pamphlet - Pamphlet (pamphlet chastity, rights of women pamphlet);
  • Photographs or artwork - Pictorial works (Chicago pictorial works, World's Fair pictorial works).


2. Search in Google Books - If your topic is pre-1923, you can probably find primary sources that are in the public domain (no longer under copyright protection). Google has digitized books from many of the world's major research libraries, and all of the works in the public domain are freely available in Google Books.

3. Search in Library Databases: The DU Library has some databases for primary source materials. Below are examples of such databases.