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Primary Sources

What is a Primary Source?

A primary source is usually a record made at the time of an event by participants or by firsthand observers. Examples include, but are not limited to, contemporary newspaper or magazine accounts, diaries, correspondence, parliamentary proceedings, government reports, government/organizational archives, and manuscripts. Sometimes these records are reprinted much later than the time at which they were written, but they are still primary sources.

Primary sources can be very different for different subjects. If you are writing a paper about an early female physician, for example, then her diary would be a primary source. If you are studying mid-twentieth century diplomatic history between the United States and Iraq, the State Department records (such as Confidential U.S. State Department Central Files: Iraq, 1955-1959, available on Microfilm 498) would be a primary source. If you are unsure what constitutes a primary source for your topic, ask your instructor for some ideas.

How Do I Find Primary Source Material?

Try searching databases that are relevant to your subject area. Many of these databases will lead you to the writings of people from earlier time periods. Databases that contain references to (or the full text of) primary source material include:

America's Historical Imprints
Full text of books from Early American Imprints, the Evans Series (1639-1800), the Shaw-Shoemaker Series (1801-1819), and full text of broadsides, 1820-1900, (large sheets of paper usually printed on one side), and ephemera,1760-1900 (things like invitations, lottery announcements, menus, stock certificates, etc.) from American Broadsides and Ephemera.

ATLA Historical Monographs Collection
Full text of titles focused on religion and theology, in English and other languages, 13th century-1923.

Early English Books Online (EEBO)
Full text of English-language books published in Great Britain or British North America, 1473-1700.

Early European Books
Full text of all works printed in Europe before 1701, regardless of language, together with all pre-1701 works in European languages printed further afield.

Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO)
Full text of English-language and foreign-language books published in the UK between 1701-1800.

English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC)
Catalog of books published in English, 1475-1800. Full text often available in EEBO, ECCO, described above.

American Antiquarian Society Historical Periodicals Collection
Full text of American magazines and journals, 1691-1852.

American Periodicals Series
Full text of American magazines and journals, 1740-1941.

British Periodicals
Full text of British magazines and journals, 1600s-1900s.

Eighteenth Century Journals
Full text of British magazines and newspapers, ca. 1685-1815.

Godey's Lady's Book
Full text of the women's periodical, 1830- 1898.

HarpWeek
Full text of Harper's Weekly magazine, 1857-1912.

Humanities & Social Sciences Index Retrospective
References to journal and magazine articles published in North America and Europe, 1907-1984.

Nineteenth Century Masterfile
References to journal and magazine articles published in America and Great Britain, 1786-1925.

Nineteenth Century UK Periodicals
Full text of British periodicals.

Opinion Archives
Full text of The American Spectator (1967-present), Commentary (1945-present), Commonweal (1924-present), Dissent (1954 -present), Harpers Magazine (1850-present), NACLA (North American Congress on Latin America) Report on the Americas (1966-present), National Review (1955-present), The New Republic (1914-present), and The New Yorker (1925-present). References, but not full text, to other periodicals also available.

Readers' Guide Retrospective
References to magazines and journals published in the U.S., 1890-1982.

Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals, 1824-1900
Index, with some full text, that identifies the authors of articles within major Victorian periodicals. Forty-five monthly and quarterly titles are included.

African Newspapers
Full text of more than 40 nineteenth and twentieth century African newspapers.

African American Newspapers: The 19th Century
Full text of newspapers such as Freedom's Journal, Frederick Douglass Paper, and The Christian Recorder.

America's Historical Newspapers
Full text of historic newspapers, 1690-1922.

Atlanta Daily World Historical Newspaper
Full text of the African-American newspaper, 1931-2003.

British Newspapers
Full text of British newspapers, 1600-1900. Includes Seventeenth-Eighteenth Century Burney Collection Newspapers and Nineteenth Century British Library Newspapers
.

Chicago Defender Historical Newspaper
Full text of the African-American newspaper, 1910-1975.

Chicago Tribune Historical Newspaper
Full text of the Chicago Tribune, 1849-1987.

Eighteenth Century Journals
Full text of British magazines and newspapers, ca. 1685-1815.

Guardian and Observer Historical Newspapers
Full text of the British newspapers, Guardian, 1821-2003, and Observer, 1791-2003.

Latin American Newspapers
Full text of Latin American Newspapers, 19th and 20th centuries.

LexisNexis Academic
Full text of articles from U.S. and world newspapers and magazines; dates vary: typically 1980s-present.

Los Angeles Sentinel Historical Newspaper
Full text of the African-American newspaper, 1934-2005.

Los Angeles Times Historical Newspaper
Full text of the Los Angeles Times, 1881-1987.

New York Amsterdam News Historical Newspaper
Full text of the African-American newspaper, 1922-1993.

New York Times Historical Newspaper
Full text of the New York Times, 1851-2007.

Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers
Full text of American newspapers from the 1800s.

Norfolk Journal and Guide
Full text of the African-American newspaper, 1921-2003.

Oklahoman Archives
Full text of The Oklahoman, formerly The Daily Oklahoman, newspaper, Sept. 1901-present.

Pittsburgh Courier Historical Newspaper
Full text of the African-American newspaper, 1911-2002.

South Asia Newspapers
Full text of newspapers from India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka published between 1864-1922.

Times Digital Archive
Full text of the London Times newspaper, 1785-1985. Does NOT include the Sunday edition.

Wall Street Journal Historical Newspaper
Full text of the Wall Street Journal, 1889-1993.

Washington Post Historical Newspaper
Full text of the Washington Post, 1877-1994.

CQ Historic Document Series
Full text of primary sources covering significant events of each year, 1972-present.

Congressional Publications
Formerly Lexis-Nexis Congressional. Full text of the Serial Set and American State Papers, full text of much of the Congressional Record, and references to legislative information.

Declassified Documents Reference System (DDRS)
Full text of previously classified U.S. government documents; ca. 1905-present.

Hein Online - see link below

Public Documents Masterfile
References to federal, state, local and international public documents, 1789-present.

American Founding Era Collection
Includes papers of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Dolley Madison, James Madison, George Washington, and the series Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution.

America's Historical Imprints
Full text of books from Early American Imprints, the Evans Series (1639-1800), the Shaw-Shoemaker Series (1801-1819), and full text of broadsides, 1820-1900, (large sheets of paper usually printed on one side), and ephemera,1760-1900 (things like invitations, lottery announcements, menus, stock certificates, etc.) from American Broadsides and Ephemera.

American History and Culture Online, Sabin Americana, 1500-1926
Full text of works about the Americas published in America and Europe.

American West
Full text of manuscripts, maps, ephemeral material related to the American west, 1722-1939.

Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century
Digital reproductions of organizational and personal papers and federal government records, including the papers of Mary McLeod Bethune and Claude A. Barnett, records of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, government records on African-Americans in the military, black workers in the era of the Great Migration, files on surveillance of African-Americans, and FBI Files.  

British Literary Manuscripts Online, c. 1100-1900
Full text of two digital collections, British Literary Manuscripts Online, c. 1660-1900 and British Literary Manuscripts Online: Medieval and Renaissance. The first collection contains complete facsimile copies of author manuscripts including poems, plays, and novels, diaries and letters, as well as drawings and handwritten drafts. The second offers access to 565,000 pages of rare manuscripts from the medieval and early modern periods, including letters, poems, stories, plays, chronicles, religious writings and commonplace books through searchable catalogue records.

Colonial State Papers
Full text of "CO 1" from the British National Archives: Privy Council and Related Bodies: America and West Indies and bibliographic information with extracts from Calendar of State Papers, Colonial: North America and the West Indies 1574-1739. 16th-18th centuries.

Early Encounters in North America
Full text of letters, diaries, memoirs, and accounts of early encounters with Native Americans; dates vary.

Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) Daily Reports
Full text of U.S. government translations of foreign broadcasts, publications, and government statements, 1950-1996.

Hein Online
Full text of legal documents including English Reports, Full Reprint, 1220-1867; Foreign Relations of the United States; World Trials Library; U.S. Presidential Library - including Messages and Papers of the Presidents, Public Papers of the Presidents, etc.

Making of Modern Law
Full text of more than 22,000 Anglo-American works from casebooks, local practice manuals, form books, works for lay readers, pamphlets, letters, etc.; 1800-1926.

Making of the Modern World: The Goldsmiths'-Kress Collection of Economic Literature 1450-1850
Full text of more than 61,000 books and 466 serials.

North American Indian Thought and Culture
Includes full text of Doris Duke Indian Oral History project (1967-1972), also available here:
http://digital.libraries.ou.edu/whc/duke/.

North American Women's Letters and Diaries
Full text, 1675-2002.

Overland Journeys: Travels in the West, 1800-1880
Full text of selections from the bibliographies, The Plains and Rockies: A Critical Bibliography of Exploration, Adventure, and Travel in the American West, 1800-1865 in the American West, 1800-1865 and The Trail West: A Bibliography-Index to Western.

State Papers Online, The Government of Britain, 1509-1714
Full text of British government materials, including State Papers, Domestic and Foreign.

Women and Social Movements in the United States
Full text of reports and other documents, 1600-2000.

Most of the primary source materials that the library has are labeled with special subject headings in the e labeled with special subject headings in the in the catalog. The following are the most common subject headings given to primary source material. To find these materials, use one or more of the terms as keywords to search the catalog, along with the term(s) used to describe your topic.

There is a significant collection of primary source material reproduced on microfilm or microfiche (located in the Microforms Area of the Current Periodicals Room, Lower Level 1, West). Guides to some of the collections are in book cases near the microfilm cabinets.  See http://faculty-staff.ou.edu/S/Laurie.L.Scrivener-1/microforms.htm to browse a list of some of  these materials, or search the catalog for a specific collection.

There are also many printed volumes that reproduce primary sources. See http://faculty-staff.ou.edu/S/Laurie.L.Scrivener-1/print.htm to browse a list of these materials, or search the catalog for a specific title.

The government documents department on the fourth floor of Bizzell Library is a good place to find primary source material such as congressional hearings, documents from government agencies, laws, and Supreme Court decisions. See also databases listed above.

The University of Oklahoma Libraries has several special collections that have primary source materials:

The University of Oklahoma Libraries also has several digital collections available; see http://digital.libraries.ou.edu/. The site includes materials from the Western History Collections: Doris Duke Collection of American Indian Oral History; Indian-Pioneer Papers Collection, etc.; History of Science Collections; as well as material on the University of Oklahoma's history, including minutes of the University's Board of Regents' meetings, and Sooner Magazine.

If you want to see what archival and manuscript materials other institutions hold, search Archive Finder and ArchiveGrid. Archive Finder is a directory of repositories and collections of primary source material across the United States and the United Kingdom; it includes the entire National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC). ArchiveGrid contains descriptions of collections from thousands of libraries, museums, and archives worldwide.  

Many libraries and other institutions have digitized resources on the internet. See http://libraries.ou.edu/eresources/guides/?id=60 and click on "internet" for a directory of such resources. Also see the database OAIster which provides access to a union catalog of more than 23 million digital resources including: digitized books and articles, born digital texts, audio files, images, movies, and datasets.

Finally, don't forget to check the bibliographies of the secondary sources that you find!

Laurie Scrivener
(Email: lscrivener at OU dot edu)
Associate Professor of Bibliography
History and Area Studies Reference Librarian

8-13-03, updated 8-3-11
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