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History (Primary Sources Only): Primary Sources - Overview

A guide to finding primary sources online and in libraries and archives at Temple, the country, and world.

Regional Primary Sources

Research Manuals

Book-length guides to locating and evaluating primary sources.

Click title to see full bibliographic record, including call #, in Diamond.

Click book jacket to view record on Amazon. Except where noted, these titles are only available in paper.

What Are Primary Sources?

"Primary sources are original records created at the time historical events occurred or well after events in the form of memoirs and oral histories. Primary sources may include letters, manuscripts, diaries, journals, newspapers, speeches, interviews, memoirs, documents produced by government agencies such as Congress or the Office of the President, photographs, audio recordings, moving pictures or video recordings, research data, and objects or artifacts such as works of art or ancient roads, buildings, tools, and weapons. These sources serve as the raw material to interpret the past, and when they are used along with previous interpretations by historians, they provide the resources necessary for historical research" (Source: Using Primary Sources on the Web, a website created by the History Section of the American Library Association designed to help researchers locate, evaluate, and properly cite online primary sources).

Scholars analyze and interpret primary sources in secondary works, particularly scholarly monographs (books) and peer-reviewed journal articles. Secondary sources need not be scholarly, however, and can include popular magazine and newspaper articles, non-academic biographies, textbooks, or websites. Please contact your professor or me if you are having difficulty differentiating between primary and secondary sources. Occasionally you might come across a reference to a "tertiary" source. Tertiary sources are essentially reference works; they list, index, summarize, or in some other way facilitate access to both primary and secondary sources. Examples of tertiary sources in history include Historical Abstracts and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Find Primary Sources at TULibraries: What Are Your Options?

Temple University Libraries provide access to numerous primary-source history databases. Explore them all from the Primary Sources - Europe and Primary Sources - United States sub-tabs of this guide. The Special Collections Research Center (SCRC)Urban Archives, and the Blockson Collection are all important archival repositories located on Temple's main campus.  Several major in-house digitization efforts have resulted in the online availability of thousands of images and manuscripts from these collections, all of which are available through our Digital Collections search page. The Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PASCL) has a smiliar page with finding aides and a search feature. Find links to other area institutions with significant archival collections in the Philadelphia Area tab of this guide.


Digital reproductions of primary documents in American and European history are now relatively abundant online. Link to some of the best free portals -- EuroDocs, American Memory, etc. -- from the Primary Sources - Europe and Primary Sources - United States tabs of this guide. Recall that the vast majority of primary documents remain available only in paper. These can take the form of reproductions of letters and diaries published in commonly-held books or rare manuscripts available only in a single library or archive. Search the Diamond catalog to find primary sources in Paley and other Temple University Libraries. Look for records in which the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) include the word Sources as a subheading. When you see this subheading it means that you have found the record for a primary source located in the physical or online library. Note the call # to retrieve from Paley or the Library Depository. See the box below for additional details and search examples.

Find Primary Sources: Diamond, the Library Catalog

Search Diamond to find primary sources available through Temple University Libraries. Begin by taking just a few minutes to understand Library of Congress Subject Headings, or LCSH for short. Subject headings are "tags" applied by professional librarians to records in library catalogs. They are similar to but more precise and systematically applied than the tags you are probably already familiar with in blogs and Web 2.0 sites such as Facebook and Flickr.

Such tags offer researchers accurate descriptions of books and other library resources. Critically, subject headings provide information about the type of work described: primary source, biography, bibliography, etc. Remember that the term Sources is used as a subheading in LCSH to identify primary-source material. Other primary-source subheadings include Personal Narratives, Correspondence, and Diaries.

Example: A researcher needs to find primary-source documents on the U.S. Civil War. The most relevant subject heading is:

United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Sources.

A long and complicated "tag," granted, and not very intuitive! Fortunately, the researcher effectively needs to know only that Sources is used as a subheading to identify primary works. The following keyword searches, which take advantage of distinct search "facets" as described in the Find Books tab, reveal citations to books that contain U.S. Civil War primary documents.

  1. "Civil War" AND "United States" AND s:Sources
  2. "Civil War" AND "United States" AND s:Diaries
  3. Reconstruction AND s:Sources
  4. Gettysburg AND s:"Personal Narratives"
  5. Confederate AND s:Correspondence

    Note: In the examples above, placing "s:" before the search terms Sources, Diaries, Personal Narratives, and Correspondence instructs the catalog to return only records that contain those terms in the subject field; this technique improves search relevance but is optional.

      Guide Author

      David C. Murray
      Contact:
      Office: Paley Library, Room 319

      Phone: 215-204-4250
      Website / Blog PageSkype Contact

      More Options

      These TULibraries' databases help researchers find paper and digital archives. The Diamond catalog lists printed directories and catalogs of archival and manuscript collections located in Philadelphia and around the country. Included below are links to the digital collections, virtual exhibitions, and finding aids of TULibraries' Special Collections Research Center (SCRC).

        Serendip-o-matic

        Serendip-o-matic logo

        Enter a block of text into the SERENDIP-o-MATIC engine, perhaps from an archival finding aid or bibliography, to discover other relevant archival collections. Includes results from such important collections as the Digital Library of America (DPLA), Europeana, Trove, and Flickr Commons. Read a review of Serendip-o-matic by Erin Lawrimore, an archivist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.