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Primary Sources Research Guide - Humanities and Social Science Topics

Definition of primary source material

Primary resources are actual artifacts that have survived from past historical events, including letters, photographs, physical objects such as cooking utensils from the days of westward expansion, or articles of clothing. They provide firsthand evidence of historical events, and can represent a wide variety of formats that are generally not formally published (maps, audio/video recordings, posters, postcards, government documents, diaries, court records, census bureau data that is tabulated but not interpreted, etc.). Published materials can also be viewed as primary resource materials if they come from the period that is being discussed, and were written by somebody with firsthand experience of the event. Primary resources reflect the individual viewpoint of the participant or observer. For example, newspaper articles written by somebody who experienced the event are primary sources for political science, while a literary work is a primary source for literary criticism.

Textbooks, reviews of literature published in journals, etc. are secondary source materials in that they synthesize and typically attempt to interpret the past using available primary source materials. A secondary source might include some primary source material, such as quotes from people, photographs of an event, etc.

Note: Since the definitions of primary and secondary sources may vary according to academic discipline, you may want to ask your instructor for clarification if you are working on an assignment that requires you to use primary sources. Also keep in mind that the above definitions generally pertain to the Humanities and Social Sciences, which include such fields as English, History, Sociology, Education, and the Philosophy of Science. Very different definitions apply to the hard sciences, such as Chemistry, Biology, and Physics.

Examples: Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Topic Primary Source Secondary Source
Women's domestic labor in the 19th century
  • A woman's diary, written in 1880
  • An advice book about how to keep an attractive home, written in 1877
An article about domesticity in the late 19th century, published in the journal Victorian Studies in 1997
The forced displacement of Cherokee Indians from Georgia to Oklahoma in the late 1830
  • A letter written by an anonymous Cherokee man, published in the Cherokee Phoenix and Indians' Advocate in 1832, arguing against the signing of a treaty with the government that would force Cherokees to give up their land in Georgia and move westward
  • A report, Removal of Indians, written by the US House of Representatives Committee on Indian Affairs in 1830
The book Trail of Tears, published in 1976
The 1963 March on Washington
  • An account of the 1963 March on Washington, published in the Chicago Defender in 1963
  • The text of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s I Have a Dream speech
An article about the 30th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, published in the Chicago Defender in 1993
Education Statistics from the 1800's
  • A document titled "Abstract of the Massachusetts School Returns - 1838-1839" (published in 1839) (Available online here)
Article about education in Massachusetts in the 1800's that was published in 1999 in the journal History of Education Quarterly

Searching the University of Illinois catalog for primary source materials

You can find whether primary source material is available on your topic through the Online Catalog.

First you'll need to find out what Library of Congress (LC) Subject Heading(s) pertain to your topic(s). LC subject headings are standardized terms developed by the Library of Congress to describe materials listed in catalogs - using them is the best way to locate all the materials on a particular subject. You will often find that the official subject heading is not necessarily a commonly used term. For instance, the LC subject heading for the Vietnam War is NOT Vietnam War but rather Vietnamese conflict, 1961-1975. There are several ways you can find out the appropriate subject headings associated with your topic, such as:

  • Ask a librarian

  • Look in the four red volumes of the Library of Congress Subject Headings book located near the 2nd floor Information Desk in the Main Library as well as other campus departmental libraries.

  • Look up the catalog record for a book that you already know about that relates to your topic, display the record in long format, and then do a subject search based on the subject headings listed by clicking on the relevant link(s).

  • Using the "quick search" feature of the online catalog, enter a term and choose "browse subject" in the right-side "Search By" menu. After you find the appropriate LC subject headings, you can apply subheadings that will locate primary source materials. Here's an example of the entire process:

Example: Finding primary source material about the Russian Revolution in the UIUC online catalog.

Find the formal LC Subject Heading for the Russian Revolution using Quick Search:

  1. Type in: Russian Revolution

  2. Select "Browse Subject" on the right side list.

  3. Click Search

  4. When viewing the results, click the "see also" button in the first column of the table to find the formal Library of Congress Subject Heading for the Russian Revolution. You should find that the official subject heading is: Soviet Union History Revolution, 1917-1921 . Copy this heading.

Next, return to the initial search screen by clicking New Search in the upper-left corner on the page. Then, click the Guided Keyword Search tab.

In the first search box, paste in the subject heading Soviet Union History Revolution, 1917-1921 and set adjacent dropdown list to (All of These) and the Search By list to (Subject Words).

In the second search box, you can then type in one or more of the specific subheadings that identify materials as primary sources. Some of these subheadings include:

  • Correspondence

  • Diaries

  • Early works to 1800

  • Interviews

  • Pamphlets

  • Periodicals

  • Personal Narratives (or just use "narratives" as demonstrated below)

  • Sources

Note: search these "as a phrase" when the subheading contains more than one word, or you can type in every one-word subheading and search all of them at once as "any word." For example:

  • Personal narratives (as a phrase) search by (subject words)

  • Diaries interviews pamphlets periodicals sources narratives (any of these) search by (subject words)

In combination with the official subject heading for the Russian Revolution (Soviet Union History Revolution, 1917-1921), using these subheadings will retrieve titles such the following, which all contain primary source materials about the Russian Revolution:

  • Witness to revolution : the Russian Revolution diary and letters of J. Butler Wright

  • Russia in war and revolution : General William V. Judson's accounts from Petrograd, 1917-1918

  • Witnesses of the Russian Revolution

Reference books that contain primary source materials

In addition to searching the University of Illinois Library catalog for primary source material on specific topics, there are many general compilations of reprinted primary source materials that appear in books which can often be found in libraries campus wide . While some of these books can be checked out, most are "non-circulating," which means you can only use them in the library. Some examples include:

  • Campaign speeches of American Presidential Candidates - 1928-1972 (History Library - non-circulating - 329.023C15)

  • Separation of powers : documents and commentary (Education Reference - non-circulating - 320.47304 Se61)

You can find some of these by searching the catalog, or ask a librarian at any University of Illinois library to assist you in identifying reference books that offer primary resource materials pertaining to your topic.

Reference books that can help you find primary source materials

  • Encyclopedias can route you to primary sources. Check with a librarian and/or search the online catalog for titles.

  • Bibliographies often offer citations to primary source materials. They can be found in libraries in the sections that start with call # 016.

University of Illinois primary source databases (full-text)

The University of Illinois libraries subscribe to many online databases of primary source materials. Each of these is searched in a unique way, so please don't hesitate to ask for help at the reference desk of any departmental library, the Undergraduate Library, or the Information Desk on the second floor of the Main Library building. You can also call, email, IM, or have an online chat with a librarian: Ask a Librarian.

Below is a partial list of digital collections of primary source material subscribed to by University of Illinois. 

American History

  • The Gerritsen Collection: Women's History Online (1543-1945) In the late 1800s, Dutch physician Aletta Jacobs and her husband C.V. Gerritsen began collecting books and periodicals reflecting the evolution of a feminist consciousness and women's rights. By the time their successors finished their work in 1945, The Gerritsen Collection had become the greatest single source for the study of women's history in the world, with materials spanning four centuries and fifteen languages.  

  • North American Women's Letters and Diaries (Colonial to 1950) Includes the immediate experiences of 1,325 women and 150,000 pages of diaries and letters.

  • Early American Imprints. Series I. Evans - 1600-1876 Based on the renowned American Bibliography by Charles Evans. The definitive resource for every aspect of life in 17th- and 18th-century America, from agriculture and auctions through foreign affairs, diplomacy, literature, music, religion, the Revolutionary War, temperance, witchcraft, and just about any other topic imaginable. Upon completion, Evans Digital will consist of more than 36,000 works and 2,400,000 images.  

  • Early Encounters in North America - Peoples, Cultures and the Environment Contains 1,482 authors and over 100,000 pages of letters, diaries, memoirs and accounts of early encounters between North American Indians and Europeans. Particular care has been taken to index the material so that it can be used in new ways. For example, you can identify all encounters between the French and the Huron between 1650 and 1700.  

  • Early American Newspapers - Digital Over 1,100 periodicals that first began publishing between 1740 and 1900, including special interest and general magazines, literary and professional journals, children's and women's magazines.  

  • Early American Imprints. Series II. Shaw-Shoemaker - 1801-1819 Covering every aspect of American life during the early decades of the United States, this rich primary source collection provides full-text access to the 36,000 American books, pamphlets and broadsides published in the first nineteen years of the 19thcentury. Its intuitive interface allows students and scholars to explore the development of the American nation as never before.

  • US Congressional Serial Set (1817-1861) All of the reports, documents, and journals of the US Senate and House of Representatives. A rich source of primary source material on many subjects in American history. 

  • African-American Newspapers: The 19th Century (1827-1887) Has articles from seven newspapers published by and for African Americans in the nineteenth century, mostly antebellum (before the Civil War).  

  • The New York Times (1851-2001)

  • Harper's Weekly - Civil War and Reconstruction (1857-1889) Harper's Weekly was an important 19th century illustrated newspaper. You can see the pages as they were published -- with advertisements and illustrations.  

  • The Wall Street Journal (1889-1997)

American History: Civil War

American History: African-Americans

American History: Native Americans

  • Early Encounters in North America - Peoples, Cultures and the Environment Contains 1,482 authors and over 100,000 pages of letters, diaries, memoirs and accounts of early encounters between North American Indians and Europeans. Particular care has been taken to index the material so that it can be used in new ways. For example, you can identify all encounters between the French and the Huron between 1650 and 1700.

World History

  • Early English Books Online (1473-1700) contains digital facsimile page images of virtually every work printed in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and British North America and works in English printed elsewhere from 1473-1700 - from the first book printed in English by William Caxton, through the age of Spenser and Shakespeare and the tumult of the English Civil War.

  • British and Irish Women's Letters and Diaries (1500-1900) Includes the immediate experiences of 430 women, as revealed in approximately 80,000 pages of diaries and letters.

  • Empire Online (1492-1962) Over 60,000 images of original manuscripts and printed material, 1492-1962, taken from libraries and archives around the world. Africa, the Americas, Australasia, Oceania and South Asia are all covered.  

  • AccessUN (1944-2004) The premier index to United Nations documents including Official Records, masthead documents, draft resolutions, meeting records, UN Sales Publications, and the UN Treaty Series citations. Also included is the full-text of several thousand UN documents.  

  • Access UNDP (1972-1998) The foremost index to a finite collection of United Nations Development Programme Project Reports issued and held by UN headquarters between the years 1972-1998. The index provides access to evaluative, technical and terminal reports (available in full-text on microfiche from NewsBank/Readex) submitted to the UN by numerous participating and executing agencies.  

  • Eighteenth Century Collections Online (1701-1800) Nearly 150,000 English language books and other materials published in the eighteenth century, mostly British. A wide array of topics and publication types.

Women's History

Indexes to articles in historical magazines and newspapers (not full text)

These help you identify citations and abstracts to primary sources. When using these databases, you will often have to search the catalog or the Online Research Resources to obtain the full text of articles and documents of interest.

  • 19th Century Masterfile Identifies articles written from the 18th century through the early 1920's in many fields including history, the social sciences, and literature. Can help you identify articles written in the 19th century, many of which will then be available in print in the library.

  • Index to Early American Periodicals Identifies articles in the fields of literature, history of science, history of religion, and social, political, economic, and cultural history.

  • PCI: Periodicals Contents Index is a major online periodical archive that makes the backfiles of periodicals in the humanities and social sciences available electronically. Dates range from 1770 to 1995 depending on the journal title, with coverage from Volume I of the covered journals. Currently, the PCI Full Text portion of the database contains the full text of a portion of the contents from over 300 journals. These are drawn from the 15.1 million article citation records available in Periodicals Contents Index.

Indexes to secondary sources about history

The following indexes help you identify citations and abstracts to secondary sources about history. When using these databases, you will often have to search the catalog or the Online Journals and Databases to obtain the full text of articles of interest.

  • Historical Abstracts  is your complete reference guide to the history of the world from 1450 to the present (excluding the United States and Canada, which are covered in America: History and Life). This database includes annotated references to information on topics from the Renaissance to Tiananmen Square--over half a million entries in all.  

  • America: History and Life is a complete bibliographic reference to the history of the United States and Canada from prehistory to the present. Published since 1964, the database comprises over 490,000 bibliographic entries for periodicals dating back to 1954, providing an incomparable research tool for students and researchers of US and Canadian history.

Unique primary sources at the University of Illinois

The University of Illinois has many collections of primary sources that cover a variety of topics, such as: U of I  history (including student life), state and local history, advertising, American music, and librarianship. There is also a very large collection of historical newspapers in the History Library, and the Government Documents Library can point you toward a wealth of primary sources. You can access these materials directly by going to the various libraries around campus where they are held. Below are links that will provide more information about these resources.

Links to more information about primary sources

For additional information about primary source materials, including how to find primary sources on the Web, please visit the following web sites: