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Library DIY

I Am Looking for Primary Sources

Primary sources are original documents created or experienced contemporaneously with the event being researched. They are first-hand observations, contemporary accounts of events, viewpoints of the time.

This page focuses on primary sources for the arts & humanities and social sciences. (In the sciences, primary sources include journal articles that detail the results of original research.)


  • Newspaper accounts
  • Letters, Diaries, scrapbooks
  • Government documents (statistics, congressional transcripts, laws, etc.)
  • Personal accounts, autobiographies, memoirs
  • Images and museum artifacts
  • Speeches
  • Oral Histories
  • Data from scientific experiments

Other types of information may also be primary sources if they are analyzed for their historical or cultural significance. 

Below are different strategies for finding historical primary sources.

1. Search in Relevant Library Databases

University Library provides access to many databases containing primary source materials.

All Primary Source Databases

Newspapers & Media

Government Reports

Other Databases

2. Search the Library Catalog

1. The Library Catalog IUCAT includes primary source materials available in print, online, and in microfilm. If you are looking for a specific item, search by title or author.

If you are looking for primary sources on a certain topic, do an Advanced Search. Here you can limit by format (e.g. map, film, manuscript, realia), publication year, author, or subject. (Subjects can be especially helpful for narrowing a search by topic or by document type.) 

Here are some recommended catalog search terms for locating primary sources. 

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

Try these words in a general keyword search, or to narrow your results limit the search to "subject." 

Subject headings describe what an item is about. Click on the subject heading to find more books that have been tagged with the same heading. 

IUCAT full record for a book (highlights 'Subject headings')



3. Search Google

A general Google search on your topic can often be helpful. Search for the topic plus the words “primary source” or search for the topic plus a word that indicates a primary source, such as diary, interview, correspondence, etc. 

There are also freely available databases that contain archives and primary sources. Search them separately.

4. Search Google Books.

If your topic relates to an event that occurred before 1923, there are likely relevant primary sources available in the public domain. Google Books has digitized and made available many such books.

Search for a specific work or for a general topic. Note, however, that Google Books also lists resources that are only available to preview. Look for resources with publication dates before 1923 and with a Read Preview link. The Advanced Book Search allows you to limit to Full view only books.

Screenshot of Google Books Advanced Search