Primary Sources for Historical Research

Primary Sources for Historical Research


What are primary sources? Why are they useful?

Primary sources refer to documents or other items that provide first-hand, eyewitness accounts of events. For example, if you are studying the civil rights movement, a newspaper article published the day after the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march and a memoir written by someone who participated in the march would both be considered primary sources.
Historians use primary sources as the raw evidence to analyze and interpret the past. They publish secondary sources - often scholarly articles or books - that explain their interpretation. When you write a historical research paper, you are creating a secondary source based on your own analysis of primary source material. 
Examples of primary sources include diaries, journals, speeches, interviews, letters, memos, photographs, videos, public opinion polls, and government records, among many other things.

Online Databases - Poll, Survey, & Demographic Data

Historical Statistical Abstract of the U.S.

The ProQuest Statistical Abstract of the United States is the authoritative and comprehensive summary of statistics on the social, political and economic conditions of the United States. Our access includes editions back to 1878.

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The largest collection of poll data anywhere—1935 to present, all US polling firms, broad topical coverage of opinions and behavior on social issues, politics, pop culture, international affairs, and more. International and US datasets available for immediate download.

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Online Databases - U.S. Government Information

Along with the below databases, there is also a huge collection of government information in Randall Library. Much of it is findable in the library catalog and is able to be checked out like other books.

ProQuest Congressional

Comprehensive online collection of primary source congressional publications and legislative research materials covering all topics, including government, current events, politics, economics, business, science and technology, international relations, social issues, finance, insurance, and medicine. Finding aid for congressional hearings, committee prints, committee reports and documents from 1970-present, and the daily Congressional Record from 1985-present. Compiled legislative histories from 1969-present.

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Official website for U.S. federal legislative information. Provides access to accurate, timely, and complete legislative information for Members of Congress, legislative agencies, and the public. Usually updated the morning after session adjourns.

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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 (Department of State)

Resource provides access to U.S. foreign relation documents from the Department of State's website.

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Foreign Relations of the United States

Resource provides access to U.S. foreign relation documents from 1861 to 1996.

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Biographical Directory for the United States Congress

Searchable index by name, state, position, party, and years in Congress. Covers 1774-present.

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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

Searchable database of previously unreleased FBI records and documents. Contains 6700 documents and media.

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selma march

Finding Published Primary Sources in Randall Library

Primary sources are available both online and in the library. To locate published primary source materials in Randall Library, use the UNCW Library Catalog. You can start with a keyword search for your topic (e.g. "civil rights movement"), which will retrieve secondary sources as well as primary. From there, drill down to focus on primary sources by:

 1. Clicking on a relevant record, such as this book.

 2. Scrolling down to the section labeled "Subject" and clicking on a relevant subject term. Subject terms are "controlled vocabulary" terms that classify all items in the library catalog to make it easier to find things on those topics. In this example, you can click on the subject "Civil rights movements -- United States -- History -- 20th Century."

 3. After you've done that, you'll see a list of subject terms in alphabetical order. Use the search box and add words onto the end of the subject term that signify primary sources. Sources is always a good places to start, but you can also try words such as correspondence or diaries. Since the list is in alphabetical order, you can also scroll through to find subject terms that sound like they'd relate to primary sources. 

4. So, in this example, you would add " -- Sources" onto the end of the existing subject term - "Civil rights movements -- United States -- History -- 20th Century -- Sources" - and search for that. If you click on the resulting term, you will see a list of all items in Randall Library that have been given that classification - including, for example, this book entitled Eyes on the Prize that probably contains a number of useful primary sources for this topic.​

Finding Archives and Special Collections in Randall Library

Randall Library also contains some unpublished materials in its archives and special collections departments. These are primary source materials that are often one-of-a-kind or rare. The University Archives collects materials on the history of UNCW, and Special Collections focuses on the history of Southeastern North Carolina, but both of these collections have significance beyond just our university or our region. For example, if you are researching the civil rights movement, you might use University Archives to investigate how college students in the South responded to this movement.

To find these collections, you can use the search box on the Archives and Special Collections webpage, but definitely also contact the University Archives or Special Collections staff. They know best what's in the collections and can tell you if anything they have is relevant to your research.

Online Databases for Historical Research

Below, I've listed some primary source databases that are freely available online. These only scratch the surface of online collections of primary sources. To search more specifically for your topic, try searching for the topic plus archivesprimary sources, or digital collection. For example, doing a quick search for civil rights primary sources in Google finds this Civil Rights Digital Library, containing important documents, photographs, and videos from the Civil Rights era. 

PLEASE NOTE: Randall Library also pays for access to a number of primary source databases. These are listed here (or, from the library homepage, go to Databases --> By Type --> Primary Sources (Historical)). They cover both U.S. and international topics, stretching back centuries.

Amdocs: Documents for the Study of American History

Index of primary source documents relevant to American history. Documents dated 800-2009.

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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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Digital Library on American Slavery

Searchable database of detailed personal information about slaves, slaveholders, and free people of color, numbering 150,000.

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Digital Public Library of America (DPLA)

Provides access to millions of images, photographs, manuscripts, books, sounds, and more from libraries, archives, and museums across the U.S.

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Documenting the American South

Resource providing documents, images, and audio files related to the history, literature, and culture of the American South.

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EuroDocs: Online Sources for European History

Resource for documents related to Western European history including many primary historical documents. Documents are transcribed or translated if needed.

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Searchable collection of resources works with thousands of European archives, libraries, and museums to provide to users access This website gives you access to millions of books, music, artworks and more – with sophisticated search and filter tools to help you find what you’re looking for.

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History Matters

Resource for high school and college teachers and students. Serves as a gateway to web resources and offers other useful materials for teaching U.S. history.

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Internet History Sourcebooks

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

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Making of America (Cornell)

Provides full-text access to 267 monograph volumes and over 100,000 journal articles related to 19th century American history.

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New York Public Library Digital Collections

Resource provides digitized collections from The New York Public Library. Includes photography collections, early American manuscripts, fashion collections, and nature collections. The website also provides maps and atlases, as well as collections about New York City.

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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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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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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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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 Civil Rights era, some newspapers might have used the term "Negro," rather than "African American" as we use today. Keep this list handy and add to it as you learn more about the topic.

History Librarian

Kiana Webster

Social Sciences & History Librarian
Phone Number: 

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Primary Sources (Historical)

A list of primary source databases for which Randall Library pays to access.

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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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