Skip to Main Content

HIST.2980: Introduction to Historical Methods

Strategies for Primary Source Research

Do some background reading. The more you know about events, people, laws, and especially how people of the time talked about these things, the more successful you will be. You can use Wikipedia or the libraries' online encyclopedia collections to do this.

Limit to specific time periods. Use date ranges (usually on the advanced search page) to focus your search. (It helps to include a few weeks after an event.)

Start with broader search terms but limit to a narrow time period. For example: if searching for articles about the Massacre at Wounded Knee, search for: "wounded knee" limit to the date range of 12/29/1890-1/12/1891 (the word massacre may not have been used immediately after the event, but the location)
✦ Use primary source keywords to find primary sources: search terms that reflect the types of primary sources you’re looking for, such as: diaries, pamphlets, correspondence, speeches, manuscripts, personal narratives, interviews, firsthand, eyewitness, sources, etc.

Primary Source Subject Headings: (use in combination with other search terms)

  • sources
  • diaries
  • correspondence
  • interviews
  • personal narratives 
  • pamphlets
  • oral history
  • maps

For example: slave AND diary  |  suffrage AND pamphlets |  united states and race relations AND sources

Citation tracing 
Look at the citations and bibliographies in books, articles, and dissertations related to your project. Whether citations appear as endnotes or footnotes, they can lead you to primary sources found in archives, in publications, and online.

Bibliographies in books and dissertations often separate out lists of the primary or archival sources consulted. You might find a bibliographic essay at the end of a book or dissertation that not only identifies primary source materials but also describes the type and quality of information they contain.

Sample Searches for Primary Sources

Try these searches for practice.

1)From the Library's homepage, select the SUBJECT index from the drop-down menu on the Catalog tab. Type in a search analogous to one below.

❖ Immigrants AND United States AND Correspondence
❖ "European Union" AND Sources
❖ France AND History AND "Revolution, 1789-1799" AND Pamphlets

❖ Great Britain AND History AND "Civil War, 1642-1649" AND "Personal Narratives"
❖ Chicago (Ill.) AND Maps

❖ Cuba AND "Census, 1899"
❖ "Latin America" AND "Social Conditions" AND "Pictorial Works"

Generally speaking, the items you discover will not be owned by the UML library; you can request them through Interlibrary Loan. The link to borrow through ILL will appear in the catalog with the rest of the information about the item. It is autofilled with the details of the item you are seeking. You will need an ILL account, (different from your UML library account.)

2) Use the ADVANCED option in the catalog and enter these terms in the fields:

❖ SUBJECT Speeches, addresses, etc. AND KEYWORD Howard Zinn or Abraham Lincoln (for a single orator) or African Americans (for collected speeches).
❖ SUBJECT pictorial works and KEYWORD latin america AND social conditions

3) For less precise results, use KEYWORD search, (either on the library home page under the Catalog tab, or on the Advanced Search page

❖ European Union sources , (use the language filter if you get too many foreign language results as in screenshot below.)

library dropdown menu
❖ France pamphlets
(flip sort to "oldest first" as in screenshot below. The filter below is found near the top of the left side of the library results page.)

library drop down menu
❖ "immigrants letters"