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What is a primary source?

Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as close a view as possible to what happened during an historical event or time period and how it was perceived by the participants and observers. Historians use primary sources as evidence to make new observations and interpretations of an event, place, era, or other historical phenomena.
The following are generally considered primary sources:
Diaries, journals, speeches, interviews, letters, memos, manuscripts, and other papers in which individuals describe events in which they were participants or observers.
Memoirs and autobiographies. These are generally less reliable since they are usually written long after events occurred and may be distorted by bias, dimming memory, or the revised perspective that may come with hindsight.
Records of organizations and agencies of government. The minutes, reports, correspondence, etc. of an organization or agency serve as an ongoing record of the activity and thinking of that organization or agency. Many kinds of records (births, deaths, marriages; permits and licenses issued; census data; etc.) document conditions in society.
Published materials (books & newspaper, magazine, or journal articles) written at the time about a particular event. While these are sometimes accounts by participants, in most cases they are written by journalists or other observers. The important thing is to distinguish between material written at the time of an event as a kind of report, and material written much later, as historical analysis.
Photographs, audio recordings, video recordings, drawings, paintings, or political cartoons, documenting what happened.
Artifacts of all kinds: physical objects, buildings, furniture, tools, appliances, household items, clothing, toys.
If you are attempting to find evidence documenting the mentality or psychology of a time, or of a group (evidence of a worldview, a set of attitudes, or the popular understanding of an event or condition), the most obvious source is public opinion polls taken at the time. Since these are generally very limited in availability and in what they reveal, however, it is also possible to make use of ideas and images conveyed in the mass media, and even in literature, film, popular fiction, self-help literature, textbooks, etc.
Again, the point is to use sources written or produced at the time as evidence of how people were thinking.

Historical Newspapers & Magazines

See our Newspapers: Historical guide. 

U.S. Government Information


An essential database for criminology, and public and international affairs, Congress.gov is the official website for U.S. federal legislative information, such as bills, committee reports & hearings.

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Contains more than 1,200 law and law-related periodicals. Coverage is from the first issue published for all periodicals and goes through the most-currently published issues allowed based on contracts with publishers. Retrieve articles by citation, browse, or search across nearly 50 million pages of content. HeinOnline also contains many useful resources for criminology, and public and international affairs, such as the Congressional Record Bound volumes in entirety, complete coverage of the U.S.

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Digital National Security Archive - (DNSA)

This resource consists of expertly curated, and meticulously indexed, declassified government documents covering U.S. policy toward critical world events – including their military, intelligence, diplomatic and human rights dimensions – from 1945 to the present.

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Foreign Relations of the United States

from the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections.

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Homeland Security Digital Library

The Homeland Security Digital Library (HSDL) is the nation's premier collection of documents related to homeland security policy, strategy, and organizational management. The HSDL is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's National Preparedness Directorate, FEMA and the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security.

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FBI Records -- The Vault

Provides online access to selected FBI files. Particularly useful for researching groups or individuals who may have come under FBI scrutiny.

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Many of the other digital collections on this page also contain books.


Partnership of major research institutions and libraries working to ensure that the cultural record is preserved and accessible long into the future

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Internet Archive

Internet Archive is a non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, software, music, and more.

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Open Library ebooks

Through this collection, all of North Carolina has access to a large-scale shared downloadable eBook collection called the Open Library eBook Lending Collection. The eBooks in this collection are digital scans of books contributed by libraries around the country.

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Project Gutenberg

Download over 33,000 free ebooks to read on your PC, iPad, Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader, iPhone, iPod Touch, Android or other mobile or cell phone.

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Google Books

Search over 20 million books on Google Books. Use this website as a tool to identify books.

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Archival Searches

National Archives and Records Administration

News from the National Archives as well as links to guides and finding aids for its collections.  A selection of historical documents and online exhibits is also available.

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contains news from the National Archives as well as links to guides and finding aids for its collections. A selection of historical documents and online exhibits is also available
Repositories of Primary Sources

is a "listing of over 5000 websites describing holdings of manuscripts, archives, rare books, historical photographs, and other primary sources for the research scholar."

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Free version of WorldCat. The world's largest network of library content and services, WorldCat.org lets you search the collections of libraries in your community and thousands more around the world. Complete an Interlibrary Loan form (or use our easy "Worldcat - Get it from UNCW" bookmarklet) to request books.

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Searching Beyond Randall Library

is a guide to searching beyond Randall Library for hard-to-find items.

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More tools for searching archival collections.

Before you begin

Before you start your search, make a list of the terms, places, people, and specific events about which you want to find primary resources.  Remember to keep in mind the language used during the time period you are researching, as those words will allow you to find materials that you might not otherwise locate using modern terms. For example, during the 1800's an activist might have been called a "reformer", a word that we don't use much today. Keep this list handy and add to it as you learn more about the topic.

Make another list of the kinds of primary sources you hope to find or think will be available for the topic. For instance, if you think newspapers are appropriate to your research, put them on the list, and consider which newspapers would be most useful. Randall Library's holdings of historical newspapers is limited, but you may wish to make a research trip to another library or request a microfilm copy of the newspaper through interlibrary loan.

Search the Library Catalog

Books and print materials such as government documents can be found using the Library Catalog.

Search by:

In addition to our library catalog, you might want to search Worldcat.org to find resources from other libraries:


Free version of WorldCat. The world's largest network of library content and services, WorldCat.org lets you search the collections of libraries in your community and thousands more around the world. Complete an Interlibrary Loan form (or use our easy "Worldcat - Get it from UNCW" bookmarklet) to request books.

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To easily access primary source materials in the Randall Library, you'll employ some sophisticated search capabilities like limiting by language and format or combining subject headings.

Search Tips:

Keyword searches will likely retrieve something on your subject. This type of search looks in practically all parts of the catalog record, and is the only way to access the data in the Contents Notes field of records. However, if you are not using the terms catalogers use to identify a subject, keyword searches may actually retrieve fewer items than a subject search.

Subject searches use a controlled vocabulary, bring more consistency to searches, organizing records by subtopics. Library of Congress Subject Headings are used in both the local catalog and in WorldCat.

Primary Source Subheadings: There are several subject subheadings used to identify books or other resources that are compilations of primary source material. Look for:

Archives *
Caricatures and cartoons
Correspondence *
Diaries *
Early works to 1800
Newspapers [e.g., African Americans -- Newspapers]
Notebooks, sketchbooks, etc.
Personal narratives (used in relation to specific events only)
Pictorial works
Songs and music
Speeches, addresses, etc.*

*These subheadings are typically used under Subject Headings for individuals or terms describing groups of people, e.g., Soldiers.

Subject searches paired with the subheadings identified above with an asterisk (*) will also retrieve primary resources, e.g., Wilson Woodrow correspondence.

To determine other appropriate subject headings associated with your topic you can enter your search as a Keyword. Look for an appropriate record, and link to the subject headings attached to that record.

Examples from the library collection:

U.S. Research - Databases & Digital Collections

Accessible Archives

Diverse primary source materials reflecting broad views across American history and in a comprehensive databases. Includes newspapers, periodicals and books such including African American Newspapers, The Christian Recorder, The Colored American, Frederick Douglass Paper, Douglass Monthly, Freedom's Journal, HISTORY OF WOMAN SUFFRAGE, The National Era, The North Star, The Pennsylvania Gazette, The Pennsylvania Genealogical Catalog, Pennsylvania Newspaper Record, The Pennsylvania Packet, Provincial Freeman, Scenes from the Life of Harriet Tubman, Twelve Years a Slave and Weekly Advocate.

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North Carolina ECHO

Exploring North Carolina's Cultural Heritage Online

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Digital Library on American Slavery

The Digital Library offers a searchable database of detailed personal information about slaves, slaveholders, and free people of color.

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American Slavery

"American Slavery: A Composite Autobiography" is a collection of the life histories of former slaves in the United States complied from nearly 4,000 interviews with ex-slaves.

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North American Women's Letters and Diaries

Full text of letters and diaries. The collection includes bibliographies of women's diaries and letters yet published. It lists over 7,000 published and unpublished items from a variety of sources.

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HeritageQuest presents a varied and in-depth set of data for genealogists and historians. Includes data from all of the U.S. Censuses until 1940, an index of 6,500 local history and genealogy periodicals (PERSI), a database of Revolutionary War pension and bounty-land warrant, plus the full text of 25,000 local histories and family histories.

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Making of America (Cornell)

Full-text for 22 journals and 267 books from the 19th century.

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Ninteenth Century Documents Project

Furman University professor Lloyd Benson works with students to provide this database of searchable transcribed documents on American history, with emphasis on sectional conflict and regional identity. 

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History Matters

"Designed for high school and college teachers and students, History Matters serves as a gateway to web resources and offers other useful materials for teaching U.S. history."

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Documenting the American South

Documenting the American South (DocSouth) is a a project at UNC-Chapel HIll that provides online access to texts, images, and audio files related to southern history, literature, and culture. Currently DocSouth includes sixteen thematic collections of books, diaries, posters, artifacts, letters, oral history interviews, and songs.

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Historical Census Browser

Detailed census statistics by state and county for 1790-1960.

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New York Public Library Digital Collections

Explore well over a half a million items digitized from The New York Public Library's collections. Spanning a wide range of historical eras, geography, and media, NYPL Digital Collections offers drawings, illuminated manuscripts, maps, photographs, posters, prints, rare illustrated books, videos, audio, and more. Encompassing the subject strengths of the vast collections of The Library, these materials represent the applied sciences, fine and decorative arts, history, performing arts, and social sciences.

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Digital Public Library of America (DPLA)

The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) offers a single point of access to millions of items—photographs, manuscripts, books, sounds, moving images, and more—from libraries, archives, and museums around the United States.

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U.S. and International Research - Databases & Digital Collections

Humanities & Social Sciences Index Retrospective

Humanities & Social Sciences Index Retrospective offers a broad range of subject coverage in the humanities and social sciences—including anthropology, archaeology, art, art history, family studies, foreign languages and literatures, history, law, music, performing arts, theatre and much more.

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ARTstor Digital Library

The ARTstor Digital Library is a nonprofit resource that provides over 2 million digital images in the arts, art history, architecture, anthropology, history, humanities, foreign languages and literatures, religion, and sciences with an accessible suite of software tools for teaching and research.

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Archives Unbound

Archives Unbound presents topically-focused digital collections of historical documents that support the research and study needs of scholars and students at the college and university level. Collections in Archives Unbound cover a broad range of topics from the Middle Ages forward-from Witchcraft to World War II to twentieth-century political history. Collections are chosen for Archives Unbound based on requests from scholars, archivists, and students.

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Internet History Sourcebooks

A series of sourcebooks providing electronic access to documents in the public domain.

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Heads of state since the eighteenth century, by country and name. 

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David Rumsey Map Collection

High quality map images, with emphasis on 19th and 20th century North and South America.

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EuroDocs: Online Sources for European History

Western European (mainly primary) historical documents that are transcribed, reproduced in facsimile, or translated.

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Voice of the Shuttle: History

An index of history-related resources on the Internet.

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Perseus Digital Library

features a collections covering "the history, literature and culture of the Greco-Roman world."

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ARTFL consists of over 3000 texts, ranging from classic works of French literature to various kinds of non-fiction prose and technical writing.

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European Views of the Americas: 1493 to 1750

European Views of the Americas is a comprehensive guide to printed records about the Americas written in Europe before 1750 from European Americana: A Chronological Guide to Works Printed In Europe Relating to the Americas, 1493-1750. The database contains more than 32,000 records, and covers the history of European exploration as well as portrayals of native American peoples.

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Victorian Web

"[O]ne of the oldest academic and scholarly websites," Victorian Web is an index of primary resources related to the Victorian-era Great Britain."

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Polling the Nations

Public opinion polls.

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Contains millions of digital items (texts, images, video, and sound) provided by Europe's museums and galleries, archives, libraries and audio-visual organizations.

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World Digital Library

The World Digital Library (WDL) is a project of the U.S. Library of Congress, carried out with the support of the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO), and in cooperation with libraries, archives, museums, educational institutions, and international organizations from around the world.

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Contains millions of digital items (texts, images, video, and sound) provided by Europe's museums and galleries, archives, libraries and audio-visual organizations.

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Searching Beyond Randall Library

is a guide to searching beyond Randall Library for hard-to-find items.

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Other History Research Guides

is a list of all the research gudes for history. 

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Finding Books on the Shelf

Ready to find library books on the shelf? Our books are arranged in Library of Congress call number order. Below are some helpful links and just ask a librarian for help if needed. 

Writing Help

Citation and Bibliography Help

vetted & reliable tools collected by Randall Library.

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Writing Services

at the University Learning Center, located on the first floor of DePaolo Hall (DE 1003).

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Read&Write Gold

free to UNCW faculty, staff, and students, Read&Write Gold is "a flexible literacy software solution that can help readers and writers...access support tools needed to reach their potential, build confidence and independence and succeed."

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