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Undergraduate Education

Information about doing education research at the Trustee Library.

Definitions and Examples

Primary sources are original materials, such as first-hand accounts, events, or works of literature or art, that have not been interpreted by anyone other than their creators. Common types of primary sources are diaries, letters, manuscripts, journals, interviews, memoirs, autobiographies, oral history interviews, speeches, organizational records, business records, documents produced by government agencies, newspapers, and many more.  These sources do not generally describe or analyze other documents but are usually created by those who have witnessed what they are describing.

Watch the following video for more information on understanding primary sources.

Finding Primary Resources


Think About Your Topic

Once you have decided upon a topic and have gathered some information about the background of your topic, including the key people, places, events, and dates involved, you can start to think about finding primary sources.  Think about these questions in order to determine what types of information you will be searching for:

  • What types of documents would have been created during the event or time period I am researching? (Government documents, newspapers, diaries, business reports, etc.?)
  • Whose perspective am I looking for? (civilian, soldier, politician, woman, slave?)

Search Terms

Manuscript collections or archives of organizational records often include some of the following keywords in their titles or content descriptions.  By combining these words with words that describe your topic you are more likely to find primary sources:

  • collection or collected works
  • papers
  • archive or archives
  • diaries
  • correspondence
  • documents
  • journal
  • letters
  • manuscripts
  • pamphlets
  • personal narratives
  • sources
  • speeches
  • account
  • notebooks
  • reports
  • drafts

An example of this type of search is "United States Civil War" AND diaries

Search by Author

To find diaries, letters, autobiographies, etc. search a person's name as an author which will give you results written by the person rather than results about them.

Books and Articles

Many secondary sources will include a Works Cited or Bibliography of the sources used by the author.  Primary sources are frequently listed in these bibliographies.

Database Tips

Many of the databases allow you to limit your search to document types and to primary source types in the advanced search screen.  For instance, in the database Academic Search Complete, go to the advanced search screen:

Once you are in the advanced search screen, scroll down and you will see document types.  You can choose to search for letters and speeches, both of which are types of primary sources.  It will look like this:

You may also search by primary source types.  It will look like this:


Databases and the Internet: Resources to find Primary Documents