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Primary Sources

Source Selection Strategies

Sometimes it can be hard to think of what kinds of primary sources might be available for the topic you are interested in. Here are some strategies you can use to start your search.

  • Use reference and secondary sources to get to know the topic.
    • Look for names, events, groups and organizations and other keywords that you can search.

  • Look at the bibliography of secondary sources.
    • Pay attention to the dates, are they from the time period you are researching?
    • Also, consider reprints and compilations of items
    • What types of materials are they? Newspapers, letters, court documents?

  • What was common at the time?
    • How did people communicate at that time?

  • Use your imagination
    • You may have to 'imagine' the kinds of things that would be produced and may have survived.

Search Strategies


You can use the library search system - OneSearch to find books with primary sources. This includes reprints of original works like letters, speeches, and diaries, as well as published works like autobiographies.


Use Keywords to search for common kinds of primary source materials

  • Letters
  • Writings
  • Speeches
  • Testimonies/Testimonies
  • Autobiography
  • Oral histories
  • Selected sources
  • Documents
  • Documentary hist

When searching in One Search, using the Advanced Search option to limit your results.  Use the subject heading for primary sources and type in sources for your search.. A subject heading is like a #hashtag in social media. Each item is 'tagged' with what it is about and the tag allows users to search for things on that topic, or click on the tag to get more items like it.



Suggested Databases

Database Search Tip

The search shown below for Thomas Jefferson as author and a publication type limiter for primary source document would find inaugural addresses and letters. When searching for primary source documents, look also for document type limiters such as speech or interview