Skip to Main Content


What is a Primary Source?

Primary sources are records that provide first-hand accounts or evidence of an event, action, topic, or time period. Primary sources are usually created by individuals that directly experience an event or topic. Common examples of primary sources include: letters, diaries, speeches, interviews, photographs, government documents, artistic works, works of literature (fiction; poetry), original research reports and data sets.

Primary vs. Secondary Sources (History Videos)

Using Primary Sources for History Assignments

Below are some examples of primary source types that work particularly well with history classes. Remember that all of these would be *from the time period being studied*:

  • Diaries and journals
  • Letters and memos
  • Oral History
  • Film
  • Speeches and interviews
  • Government documents such as laws, court cases, legislative proceedings, etc.
  • Newspapers, pamphlets, advertisements
  • Autobiography and memoir
  • Photographs
  • Art and literary works
  • Maps
  • Songs & Music

Recommended Web Sites for Finding and Using Historical Primary Sources

Questions to Ask Yourself About Primary Sources

  • When and where was it created?
  • Who created it, and for what purpose?
  • Who was the intended audience?
  • What was happening during the time period in which it was created?
  • What biases do you see?
  • What insight does it give you on the time period or historical event being studied? How does it reflect the time in which it was produced?

Recommended Databases

America's Historical Newspapers

America's Historical Newspapers

Complete editions from hundreds of US newspapers providing primary source content covering eras such as the Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War I, Roaring Twenties, Great Depression, World War II, Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War, Information Age and more.

Black Life in America

The experience and impact of African Americans as recorded by the news media.

Book Collections of Primary Sources

Milestone Documents in African American History

This set covers 125 iconic primary documents from the 1600s to the present.

Defining Documents in American History: the Great Migration

Also known as the Great Northward Migration and the Black Migration, this movement of more than six million African Americans from American's rural southern regions to its urban northern regions occurred over more than 50 years, from 1916 to 1970.

Milestone Documents in World History

Combining full-text primary sources with in-depth expert analysis, the 125 entries in the 4-volume set cover important and influential primary source documents from the third millennium BCE to the twenty-first century.

Milestone Documents of American Leaders, Revised Edition

Here, the lives of notable Americans are illuminated through an in-depth study of primary source texts that made them exceptional. .

American Decades: Primary Sources

Each "Primary Sources volume covers a decade in American history ,amplifying and illuminating the decade with first-hand accounts and other primary source documentation.

American Speeches

A historian and former presidential speechwriter presents an unprecedented two-volume collection of the greatest speeches in American history.

Tips for Finding More Books

When searching our catalog for books and media, combine a relevant search term with a "primary source" term, such as diaries, correspondence, personal narratives, or speeches: