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HST 102: Europe & the World in the Modern Era: Primary Sources

What is a primary source?

In historical research, a primary source can be any source of information created at the time of a historical event or by a direct participant in or observer of an event.

Primary sources can include memoirs, diaries, correspondence, interviews, photographs, newspaper or magazine articles, film footage, news broadcasts, official documents, speeches, maps, artifacts, and works of fiction or drama.

What constitutes a primary source depends entirely on the subject of research. For example, John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage would be a secondary source in a study of John Quincy Adams or Sam Houston, but it could serve as a primary source if the topic of study were Kennedy himself.

Tips for Locating Primary Sources

Choose historically appropriate keywords. For example, use "Great War" instead of "World War I" to locate documents discussing the war during and just after it occurred. You may also consider different terms that might have been used to describe the same event from opposing sides or perspectives. Searching for the names of particular people or places may also be effective, but consider how the names might be presented (last name only, or as part of a title) and how country and city names have changed over time.

Think about what types of primary sources might have been produced that would be relevant to your topic; think also about which persons or organizations might have produced materials. Some possible types of sources:

Books  Photographs and images
Magazine and newspaper articles Cartoons and advertisements 
Diaries and journals  Movies, videos, and DVDs
Memoirs and autobiographies Audio recordings
Interviews Public opinion polls
Letters  Fiction
Speeches  Research data and statistics
Documents produced by organizations Documents produced by government agencies,
including congressional hearings and census records 

To locate potential primary sources in the library's online catalog, Primo, look for subject headings that contain terms such as diaries, letters, correspondence, autobiography, interviews, or personal narratives following the main heading. 


Primary Source Databases & Digital Archives

The resources listed below are just a few of the online primary sources available through ZSR Library and on the web. If you are unable to find information on your topic, schedule a personal research session with a librarian for more help!



Questions to ask of a primary source

  1. What is this item?
  2. Who is the author/creator?
  3. Who is the intended audience?
  4. When and where was it published or created?
  5. Why was it created?
  6. What is the historical context of this item (i.e., what else was going on in the region or the world when it was created)?


ZSR Special Collections & Archives

ZSR's Special Collection and Archives may contain useful materials on your topic. There are a variety of ways to search these materials, depending on their format. The SCA website contains more information about hours and research help. 

1. Search SCA materials (including books) in the library catalog. These include rare books from Britain and Ireland going back to the 18th century, such as travel narratives and papers from various figures in British history. 

2. Search SCA finding aids to locate materials in collections that are not digitized. (Visit the Special Collections and Archives room in ZSR 625 for help using finding aids!)