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Primary, Secondary & Tertiary Sources: Locating Primary Sources

Guide on Identifying Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources

Getting started

If you are required to use primary sources for an assignment, make sure you understand what kinds of primary sources you are expected to use.

Once you have an understanding of the kinds of primary sources needed, consider your topic to determine where you should do your research. The Library databases U.S. History in Context, World History in Context, and Opposing Viewpoints have primary sources (do a regular search and filter for "Primary Sources" in the results, or start with an Advanced Search and select the Primary Sources box in the Content Type section). We also have all issues of LA Times going back to 1881. Current students can access these databases from off-campus following the log-in instructions.

For resources on the Web, the Library of Congress website is a good place to start: LOC Primary Source Sets. The box below contains an extensive list of websites containing excellent primary sources. 

To learn more about Finding, Evaluating and Using Primary sources, visit this Guide created by the American Library Association - Reference User Services Association.

"Primary sources are the evidence of history, original records or objects created by participants or observers at the time historical events occurred or even well after events, as in memoirs and oral histories. Primary sources may include but are not limited to: letters, manuscripts, diaries, journals, newspapers, maps, speeches, interviews, documents produced by government agencies, photographs, audio or video recordings, born-digital items (e.g. emails), research data, and objects or artifacts (such as works of art or ancient roads, buildings, tools, and weapons). These sources serve as the raw materials historians use to interpret and analyze the past." (ALA, RUSA)

Locating Primary Sources

Useful (and entertaining!) video about what Primary sources are and how to find them. Includes tips for searching by subject headings including your keyword plus words like "sources" and "autobiography" etc. See the Library of Congress Subdivisions below for search term ideas. 

(Video Source: Locating Primary Sources by Ohlone College Library)

LOC Subdivisions

When searching our library book catalog adding keywords such as "sources", "letters", "diaries", "narratives" help to find historical documents or first-person accounts. 

The below Chart lists subject heading subdivisions you may see on library catalog items, indicating the stage of publication in which the information may be located. For instance, if you see the subdivision, "personal narrative," the cataloged item is likely to be primary information. If the subdivision is "history," the item is likely to be secondary, because the information is digested and interpreted. If the subdivision is "bibliography," the item is likely to be tertiary because the information is a compilation of secondary materials.


biography (only if it's on an autobiographical record)
description and travel
personal narrative
pictorial works
short stories
biography (only if it's describing a biography--not an autobiography)
criticism and interpretation
history and criticism
government policy
law and legislation
moral and ethical aspects
political aspects
politics and government
psychological aspects
public opinion
religious aspects
social policy
study and teaching
dictionaries and encyclopedias
handbooks, manuals, etc.

(Source: Guide by UNCW William Madison Randall Library)

Primary Sources on the Web

Below are a collection of websites put together by CalStateLA that contain primary sources. They are organized by the following areas: General Primary Sources- U.S.General Primary Sources - WorldHistorical NewspapersLegal DocumentsOral History & SpeechesPublic Records & Government DocumentsVisual Materials; Historical MapsHistorical MusicEvent Specific.

American Memory
Consists of collections of primary source and archival material relating to American culture and history. Topics include: African American Civil War, Conservation Movement, Continental Congress, Farm Security Administration, Architectural History, Early Motion Pictures, Variety Stage, Woman Suffrage, the papers of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, Today in History, Portraits of the Presidents and First Ladies, 1789-Present, and more. 

American Memory Timeline
Primary sources for seven time periods of United States history are provided at this site covering 1783-1968. Each period is subdivided into various topics and contains an overview. Included are images, letters, lyrics, interviews, and more.

The American Presidency Project 
This project contains a searchable database of tens of thousands of documents from U.S. presidents from 1789 to the present. It covers inaugural addresses, press briefings, signing statements, and debates. Also features data on topics such as popularity and number of public appearances, election results back to 1828, and an archive of audio and video clips.

American Treasures of the Library of Congress
An unprecedented permanent exhibition of the rarest, most interesting or significant items relating to America's past.

Avalon Project at the Yale Law School: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy
The project contains digital documents relevant to the fields of Law, History, Economics, Politics, Diplomacy and Government from pre-18th Century to current.

A Chronology of US Historical Documents
US historical documents arranged from pre-colonial era to present. 

Digital History
Provides learning and teaching resources from online textbook, primary sources, ethnic voices to special topics and reference materials on all periods of United States History.

Documenting the American South
Documenting the American South (DocSouth) is a digital publishing initiative that provides Internet access to texts, images, and audio files related to southern history, literature, and culture.

Eighteenth-Century Studies
Covers archives works of the eighteenth century from the perspectives of literary and cultural studies. Novels, plays, memoirs, treatises and poems of the period are kept here (in some cases, influential texts from before 1700 or after 1800 as well), along with modern criticism.

Harvard Open Collections
The Open Collections provide online access to historical resources from Harvard's renowned libraries, archives, and museums. OCP's highly specialized open collections are developed through careful collaborations among Harvard's distinguished faculty, librarians, and curators. Three open collections have been launched since 2004: Women Working, 1800-1930, Immigration to the United States, 1789-1930, and Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics. Two additional collections are under development now: the Islamic Heritage Project, and Organizing Our World: Sponsored Exploration and Scientific Discovery in the Modern Age.

History Matters
A highly regarded gateway to web resources as well as a repository of unique teaching materials, first-person primary documents, and guides to analyzing historical evidence for students and teachers of American history.

Making of America
Making of America (MOA) is a digital library of primary sources in American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction. The collection is particularly strong in the subject areas of education, psychology, American history, sociology, religion, and science and technology. The collection currently contains approximately 8,500 books and 50,000 journal articles with 19th century imprints. The project represents a major collaborative endeavor in preservation and electronic access to historical texts. 

Nineteenth Century Documents Project
When completed this collection will include accurate transcriptions of many important and representative primary texts from nineteenth century American history, with special emphasis on those sources that shed light on sectional conflict and transformations in regional identity. 

Project Gutenberg
The Project contains free eBooks or etexts. There are more than 10.000 eBooks in the present collection. Most of these eBooks are older literary works that are in the public domain in the United States. All may be freely downloaded and read, and redistributed for non-commercial use. 


Selected transcriptions, facsimiles, translations from Western Europe.

EyeWitness to History
History Through the Eyes of Those who Lived it. Eyewitness accounts organized by date starting with Ancient Greece.

German Propoganda Archive
Propaganda was central to Nazi Germany and the German Democratic Republic. The Web site includes both propaganda itself and material produced for the guidance of propagandists.

The Great Hunger Archive, An Gorta Mor
A joint project of the Ireland Studies Program at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut and Kerry County Library, Ireland, to provide a comprehensive coverage or listing of archival material relating to the famine in Ireland in the 1840s.

Hanover Historical Texts Project 
A working-in-progress project covers documents from ancient Greece to the 20th Century.

Internet Medieval Sourcebook
A collection of documents, maps, images, and music for Medieval studies.

Middle East Peace Process Documents
It covers Israel and Palestine, Middle East historical and peace process source documents.

Perseus Digital Library
Digital library of resources for the study of the ancient world. Originally begun with coverage of the Archaic and Classical Greek world, has now expanded to Latin text and tools, Renaissance materials, and Papyri. Contains hundreds of texts by the major ancient authors and lexica and morphological databases and catalog entries for over 2,800 vases, sculptures, coins, buildings, and sites, including over 13,000 photographs of such objects.

Slave Voyages (The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database)
The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database has information on almost 35,000 slaving vogages that forcibly embarked over 10 million Africans for transport to the Americas between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. It offers researchers, students and the general public a chance to rediscover the reality of one of the largest forced movements of peoples in world history.

United Nations Treaty Collection
A collection of treaties and international agreements registered or filed and recorded with and published by the Secretariat since 1946.

World History Sources
Reflects three approaches central to current world history scholarship: an emphasis on comparative issues rather than civilizations in isolation; a focus on contacts among different societies and the economic, social, and cultural consequences of those contacts; and an attentiveness to global forces that transcend individual societies or even societies in mutual contact forces such as technology diffusion, migration, disease transmission, extension and realignments of trade routes, or missionary outreach.


Chronicling America (1880-1922)
This site allows you to search and view newspaper pages from 1880-1922 from the following states: Arizona, California, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Washington. It also allows you to find information about American newspapers published between 1690-present. Chronicling America is sponsored jointly by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress as part of the National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP). To see a list of these papers by state go to

Historical Los Angeles Times (1881-1992) (Library subscription database, login required from off campus)
The Los Angeles Times offers completely searchable full text and full image coverage from 1881-1992. It gives quick and accurate Web access to articles, editorials, classified ads, comics, cartoons, photos, maps, and graphics. The collection provides access to every page from every available issue.

ICON Database of International Newspapers 
The ICON Database of International Newspapers is a freely accessible electronic resource intended to provide reliable information on newspapers published outside of the United States. It includes bibliographic descriptions of titles as well as specific information on institutions' holdings of the same. The database serves as a central locus for information on international newspaper collections available in North American libraries and in selected libraries outside North America, providing a tool for resource discovery, access, and collection management.

U.S. Historical Newspapers (a collection of historical newspapers from ICON Web)
The ICON provides a comprehensive list of U.S. newspapers available on the internet. Only those newspapers without the dollar icon are for free access.


Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774-1789
The Continental Congress Broadside Collection (253 titles) and the Constitutional Convention Broadside Collection (21 titles) contain 274 documents relating to the work of Congress and the drafting and ratification of the Constitution. Items include extracts of the journals of Congress, resolutions, proclamations, committee reports, treaties, and early printed versions of the United States Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Most broadsides are one page in length; others range from 1 to 28 pages. A number of these items contain manuscript annotations not recorded elsewhere that offer insight into the delicate process of creating consensus. In many cases, multiple copies bearing manuscript annotations are available to compare and contrast.

Findlaw U.S. Supreme Court Decisions
Findlaw's searchable database of U.S. Supreme Court decisions since 1893.  Browsable by year and U.S. Reports volume number, also searchable by citation, case title and full text.  Also includes archive of Opinion Summaries from September 2000 to present.

Founders' Constitution 
A collection of thoughts, opinions, and arguments of the Founders

Landmark Supreme Court Cases 
It covers landmark Supreme Court cases including a full range of resources and activities to support the teaching and learning of landmark Supreme Court cases.

LexisNexis Academic (Library subscription database, login required from off campus)
Full text opinions of all Supreme Court cases since 1790 and all state cases. In addition, all dispositions of cases that were appealed to the Supreme Court are included.


American Rhetoric: Online Speech Bank
THE ONLINE SPEECH BANK is an index to and growing database of 5000+ full text, audio and video (streaming) versions of public speeches, sermons, legal proceedings, lectures, debates, interviews, other recorded media events, and more.

Historical Voices 
A fully searchable database of spoken word collections spanning the 20th century.

History Channel: Speeches
A collection of speeches is drawn from the most famous broadcasts and recordings of the twentieth century.

Oral History Online!
Searchable transcriptions from the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Some of the topics and interviewees include: Suffragists (Alice Paul), Disabled Persons Independence Movement (Hale Zukas); Health Care, Science, and Technology (Barbara Honeyman Heath Roll); University History Series (Arleigh Williams); University of California Black Alumni Series (Lionel Wilson); and the Earl Warren Oral History Project (Edmund G. Brown, Sr.).

Talking History
A collection of audio documentaries, speeches, debates, oral histories, conference sessions, commentaries, archival audio sources, and other aural history resources as is available anywhere.


NARA 100 Milestone Documents
A list of 100 milestone documents, compiled by the National Archives and Records Administration, and drawn primarily from its nationwide holdings. The documents chronicle United States history from 1776 to 1965.

Cornerstone Documents of Democracy
A core group of current and historical Government publications define our democratic society.

National Archives and Records Administration
Find holdings by federal government organization, media, location, and topics.

United States Historical Census Data
The data presented here describe the people and the economy of the US for each state and county from 1790 to 1960.

U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates 1774-1873 
A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation consists of a linked set of published congressional records of the United States of America from the Continental Congress through the 43rd Congress, 1774-1875.

VISUAL MATERIALS (Cartoons, images, movies, posters, photographs, and more)

Ad Access Database (advertisements) 
The Ad*Access project consists of five main subject categories: Beauty and Hygiene, Radio, Television, Transportation, and World War II from 1911 to 1957.

America from the Great Depression to World War II
55,000 black and white (more coming) and 1600 color photographs from the Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information collection have been digitized. Includes scenes of rural and small-town life, migrant labor, the effects of the Great Depression, and mobilization for World War II.  Part of the American Memory series from Library of Congress.

America's First Look into the Camera
Subtitled Daguerreotype Portraits and Views, 1839 - 1864, this site is a searchable and browsable collection of more than 650 photographs taken between 1839 and 1864. The majority are portraits taken by the Mathew Brady studio. There are also photographic views of buildings and monuments in the Washington-Baltimore area and street scenes in Philadelphia. Part of American Memory from the Library of Congress. 

America in Caricature 1765-1865
The caricatures depict times of turbulence in American history and range in date from the Revolutionary War to the War of 1812 and to the presidential elections of 1860 and 1864. 

American Landscape and Architectural Design, 1850-1920
This searchable or browsable "collection of approximately 2800 lantern slides represents an historical view of American buildings and landscapes built during the period 1850-1920." It includes the work of Frederick Law Olmstead, designer of New York's Central Park. It also contains "views of cities, specific buildings, parks, estates and gardens, including a complete history of Boston's Park System." There are images of plans, maps, and models. From the Library of Congress' American Memory Project.

American Posters of World War I
American Posters of World War One from the collection of Roger N. Mohovich

Baldy Editorial Cartoon Database: 1946-82, 1997http
A digital database with approximately 2,500 cartoons from the collection.

By the People, For the People
Subtitled Posters from the WPA, 1936-1943, this searchable site contains over 900 posters from Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. Search by keyword or browse by subject or creator. Full descriptive information is provided. Created in silk-screen, lithograph, and woodcut mediums, they were "designed to publicize health and safety programs; cultural programs including art exhibitions, theatrical, and musical performances; travel and tourism; educational programs; and community activities in seventeen states and the District of Columbia."  From the Library of Congress' American Memory Project.

By Popular Demand (Presidential portraits) 
A set of 156 portraits of presidents and first ladies

Emergence of Advertising in America
The Emergence of Advertising in America: 1850 - 1920 (EAA) presents over 9,000 images, with database information, relating to the early history of advertising in the United States. The materials, drawn from the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library at Duke University, provide a significant and informative perspective on the early evolution of this most ubiquitous feature of modern American business and culture. 

Internet Movie Database
 most comprehensive movie database on or off the Internet. It covers over 250,000 movies,  video, TV movies and TV shows, 500,000 actors, and 50,000 directors. Information includes filmographies for all professions in the industry; plot summaries; character names; movie ratings; running times; trivia; quotes etc. You can find a list of historical movies by using Browse--Facts & Trivia--Titles by year

National Museum of American History (Smithsonian)
The National Museum of American History collects artifacts of all kinds—from gowns to locomotives—to preserve for the American people an enduring record of their past. The Museum has more than 3 million artifacts in its collection. 

New York Public Library Digital Library
A collection of over 337,000 images from primary sources and printed rarities including illuminated manuscripts, historical maps, vintage posters, rare prints, photographs, illustrated books, and printed ephemera.

Online Archive of California
The Online Archive of California (OAC) provides free public access to detailed descriptions of primary resource collections maintained by more than 150 contributing institutions including libraries, special collections, archives, historical societies, and museums throughout California and collections maintained by the 10 University of California (UC) campuses. 
A collection of searchable political cartoons.

Slave Voyages (The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database)
The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database has information on almost 35,000 slaving vogages that forcibly embarked over 10 million Africans for transport to the Americas between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. It offers researchers, students and the general public a chance to rediscover the reality of one of the largest forced movements of peoples in world history.

They Drew Fire: Combat Artists of World War II 
A collection of more than 12,000 pieces of artwork by combat artists during World War II.

World War II in Color 
A collection of photos and images of World War II in color. 


American Memory Maps Collection 
An American map collection 1500-2004

David Ramsey Historical Map Collection
The historical map collection has over 22,000 maps and images online. The collection focuses on rare 18th and 19th century North American and South American maps and other cartographic materials. Historic maps of the World, Europe, Asia, and Africa are also represented.

Historical Atlas of the 20th Century 

University of Texas Historical Maps


Historic American Sheet Music 1850-1920
The Historic American Sheet Music collection presents 3,042 pieces of sheet music drawn from the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library at Duke University, which holds an important, representative, and comprehensive collection of nineteenth and early twentieth century American sheet music. This selection presents a significant perspective on American history and culture through a variety of music types including bel canto, minstrel songs, protest songs, sentimental songs, patriotic and political songs, plantation songs, spirituals, dance music, songs from vaudeville and musicals, "Tin pan alley" songs, and songs from World War I. (Returns list of collections - search Sheet Music on page)


African American History: Primary Source Documents
A collection of links to primary sources for the study of African American history.

American Slave Narratives: An Online Anthology 
A narrative collection of over 2,300 former slaves from across the American South.

Campaign Literature Archive - A Century of Los Angeles Election 
The UCLA Online Campaign Literature Archive presents a subset of the materials in the complete Campaign Literature Collection hosted in the UCLA Library. It contains copies of all archived websites plus scanned images of selected print materials. Currently, this includes all elections from 1908 to 1939, and some materials from 1940 and 2000.

Civil War Women--Primary Sources This site contains diaries, letters, documents, photographs of women during Civil War.

Ellis Island Database Search
A searchable database for Ellis Island passengers arrival records.

Eyewitness to Labor History 
An online exhibit of labor history

Gulf War: An Oral History
From Tariq Aziz to Norman Schwarzkopf, from Colin Powell to Margaret Thatcher, twenty top decision makers, military commanders, Iraqis and analysts examine the war. It also contains firsthand accounts of soldiers and pilots in the battlefield who were captured by the Iraqis and interrogated.

Japanese American Relocation Digital Archive
Over 10,000 images, including photographic prints, negatives, drawings, and watercolor paintings, can be searched and browsed.

Kappler's Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties
A list of laws and treaties pertaining to Indian Affairs.

Labor History Web Links
Developed for Labor and Working Class History Association by Rosemary Feurer, Northern Illinois University

Labor Archives in the United States and Canada (Directory)
This directory updates the work carried out almost ten years ago by the staff at the Wagner Labor Archives in New York City. A survey then conducted identified "archivists, librarians, and labor union staff who are collecting paper; audio-visual materials, and artifacts that document the history of the trade union movement in the United States." This directory includes repositories with partial holdings relating to labor and workers, as well as repositories whose whole holdings pertain to labor.

New Deal Network
A primary source set from the Library of Congress featuring a variety of documents produced by New Deal Agencies.

Private Art 
A collection of WWII Letters to and from the home front

The Valley of the Shadow
The Valley Project details life in two American communities, one Northern and one Southern, from the time of John Brown's Raid through the era of Reconstruction. In this digital archive you may explore thousands of original letters and diaries, newspapers and speeches, census and church records, left by men and women in Augusta County, Virginia, and Franklin County, Pennsylvania. Giving voice to hundreds of individual people, the Valley Project tells forgotten stories of life during the era of the Civil War.

Veterans' History Project 
A searchable database of 1,500 veteran history collections.

Women in World History: Primary Sources

George Mason University. Browse more than 200 primary sources by region.

Women Working 1800-1930 (Harvard University Library)
The Open Collections Program focuses on women's role in the United States economy and provides access to digitized historical, manuscript, and image resources selected from Harvard University's library and museum collections. The collection features approximately 500,000 digitized pages and images including: 7,500 pages of manuscripts, 3,500 books and pamphlets, and 1,200 photographs

World War I Trenches on the Web 
This site contains information on the people, places, and events that comprised one of the worst calamities of modern history.

(Source: Primary Sources on the Web Guide by CSULA Library)

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