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Researching at the Library: Primary Sources

Research tips, resources, basics, and links to course-specific research guides.

Definitions: Primary Sources

Primary sources are are materials that are closest to the event, person, information, period, or idea being studied, written, or created during the time under study. They offer an inside view of a particular event. They can be, for example:

  • artifacts (pottery, furniture, clothing) or other physical items
  • original documents (official documents, laws, photographs, diaries, letters, news films, autobiographies) -- for example The Declaration of Independence
  • creative works (poetry, plays, novels, music) -- for example The Tempest by Shakespeare

Secondary sources interpret and analyze, cite, comment on, or build upon primary sources. They are one or more steps removed from the event, person, information, period, or idea. Secondary sources may have pictures, quotes, or graphics of primary sources in them. They most often are:

  • publications (textbooks, magazine articles, histories, encyclopedias) -- for example The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas

Note: Primary and secondary are relative terms, with sources judged primary or secondary according to specific historical contexts and what is being studied.

For instance, if studying Shakespeare's play The Tempest, the text of the play is a primary and an analysis (like Shakespeare's Romances: Comprehensive Research and Study Guide) is a secondary source.

If, however, you are studying attitudes towards Shakespeare's The Tempest, you could use the book Shakespeare's Romances: Comprehensive Research and Study Guide as evidence of attitudes at the time of that study guide's writing, and therefore it could be a primary source for that particular paper.

Read more at Distinguishing between Primary and Secondary Sources by the University of California, Sants Cruz University Library.

From Our Library: Find Primary Sources

The reference books on the 1st floor in the library include collections of primary source texts.

Look especially in the American history section, found at numbers REF 970-999. We also have a set of small books that include primary source documents located in a small, wooden bookstand on top of the reference shelves.

Have you done a catalog search and picked up books for your topic from upstairs? Check the same call numbers downstairs in the reference area. Many books in the reference area have "primary document" stickers on their spines to help identify them.

Statistical Abstracts of the United States (REF 317.3 STA) contains tables with data for each year from 1996–present including population, education, law enforcement, elections, income, prices, trades and manufacturing, and more.


The Academy Archives hold artifacts and documents relating to the history of the Academy.

Some documents have been digitized and highlighted through the Governor’s Academy Archives blog. The archives can be accessed by appointment only. If you have any questions or would like more information, please email us.

Also check bibliographies and footnotes in books that are appropriate to your subject. These are often a treasure trove for further sources.

Primary Sources Online

Nowadays many primary sources have been digitized and can be accessed online. Look for them on specialized library and museum websites, in databases, or with a general Internet search. Ebooks can also be a possibility. Every time you are doing a search, remember to look for primary sources to use.

The U.S. National Archives' instructions online link to many possibilities for researching primary sources.

Below are some sites that contain primary sources of various types. More online links can be found under some of the topics in the Junior History Paper Topics guide.

From Our Library: Milestone Documents Books

The Milestone Documents primary sources series contains many significant documents in American history.

They are shelved at the following locations:

Milestone Documents in African American History  REF 301.45 MIL
Milestone Documents in American History REF 973 MIL
Milestone Documents of American Leaders REF 973.02 MIL

From Our Library: Primary Sources in Databases

Most of our article databases include many primary source texts. The databases listed below are just an example.

From Our Library: Find Articles

Most library databases contain selected resources that can be accessed only by paying a fee. Schools, colleges, universities, and public libraries pay this fee, however, so as a student or a public library card holder you can use all the library databases for free. This is why you need to enter a database through a school/library website. This is also a significant benefit - take advantage of it!

Select a database from the list on our webpage, or see topic-specific Guides on this site for recommended databases.


Note. These databases require a valid Governor's Academy user name. If you are off campus here are instructions on how to access the databases off-campus .

Because they vary in their content and emphasis, try several article databases. When you find something good, e-mail useful articles to yourself or input them into NoodleTools. It is easier to delete materials later than it is to recreate a search. Keep track of which databases you have searched so you do not duplicate your work.

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