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American History

Using Primary Sources in Historical Research

Primary sources are original materials. They are first-hand accounts from the time period involved and may include such things as:

  • diaries, letters, photographs, art, maps, original video, film or sound recordings, interviews, or newspaper articles.

How to read and evaluate a primary source

Primary Source Analysis Tool; Library of Congress, Click on the to help you fill in the categories

Why study history through primary sources?  

Secondary sources are created after the fact by individuals or groups who did not witness the events being discussed. They interpret, report, or correlate subjects based on their study of primary material. It is inevitable that we all interpret events of the past through the lens of our own experience, but reputable scholars attempt to minimize subjectivity.

In the Library Catalogue  use keywords that describe your topic together with any of the following subject headings:

  • Autobiography / Autobiographies 
  • Correspondence
  • Diary / Diaries
  • Interview / Interviews
  • Journal         
  • Letter / Letters
  • Personal narratives
  • Sources
  • Speech / Speeches


United States Primary Sources

This Resource includes the following databases:

  • Liberty Magazine Historical Archive 1924 - 1950Liberty charted the moods, lifestyles, fads and fortunes of middle-class America.
  • Indigenous Peoples of North America
  • Nineteenth Century Historical Newspapers
  • Slavery & Anti-Slavery: A Transnational Archive
  • Sabin Americana: History of the Americas 1500 - 1926
  • U.S. Declassified Documents Online

and more

eHistory (Ohio State Univ.)  - This useful site includes digitized letters and diaries, oral histories, declarations and proclamations, and all 128 volumes of "The War of the Rebellion", the official records of the Civil War (search under "books").

America's Historical Documents - U. S. National Archives

Americas Archive  -Contains in excess of 1000 documents relating to the American Southwest and its borderlands area. Sample documents include reports on the US/Mexico boundary survey from 1859 and translated documents from administrators in northern Mexico.Browse by date, author, title, or subject.

The Making of America  - A digital library of primary sources in American social history primarily from the antebellum period through reconstruction, this book collection currently contains approximately 10,000 books with 19th century imprints.

Library of Congress Digital Collection , this site consists of written and spoken words, sound recordings, still and moving images, prints, maps, and sheet music that document the American experience.

Founders Online - Correspondence & other writings by George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton & James Madison

Papers of the War Department 1784-1800 - Digitized collection of 55,000 documents of the early War Department.

The Valley of the Shadow  -  This fascinating site contains thousands of letters, diary entries, speeches and census records left by members of two Civil War communities - one northern and one southern.

Japanese American Confinement Oral Histories  This site documents the Japanese American experience during World War II. It includes over 250,000 pages from an extensive collection of manuscripts and photographs