UNST Portland -Dougher/Eufusia: Historical Primary Sources

What is a Primary Source?

primary source is an item that was created during the period being studied and documents in some way what is being studied.

Examples: Newspaper accounts, government documents, letters, diaries, autobiographies, speeches, oral histories, museum artifacts, photographs.

Finding Primary Sources

Search for Primary Sources

A primary source is an item that was created during the period being studied, and it documents in some way what is being studied. Examples of primary sources include speeches, diaries, newspapers, and personal accounts. 

Additionally, primary sources can be contextual to the research, for example a television show like Game of Thrones could be a primary source for research about power relationships.

Search the PSU Library Catalog

Go to the PSU Library Catalog and look for primary sources on a certain topic by using the Advanced Search:

  • In the first search field, leave the menu on Any Field and then enter keyword(s) for your topic;
  • In the second search field, change the drop-down menu to Subject, then add the type of primary source.

This image shows a search for a memoir related to Paul West.

advanced search in the library catalog for Paul West and and the Subject: Memoir

Choose multiple related topics by inserting a capitalized OR between them. 

This image shows a search for "civil war" as a keyword phrase and correspondence OR diaries as the types of primary resources. 

Advanced Search in the Library Catalog for "Civil War" and Correspondence OR Diaries

Search the Public Domain

If your topic is pre-1923, you can find primary sources that are in the public domain. Resources in the public domain are not under copyright protection and are usually available online for free. Google, HathiTrust, and the Digital Public Library of America have digitized documents from the world's major research libraries. The Chronicling America project at the Library of Congress has digitized American newspapers from 1836 to 1922.

Online Primary Source Collections

Seattle Taxicab Company Advertisement    Seattle Taxicab Company Advertisement, 1911, from the University of Washington Digital Collections via Flickr    Commons.

Historical Newspapers & Magazines

The American West

An excellent library database for primary sources relevant to the Pacific Northwest.

Local Collections and Archives

Using a special collections library or archive is different from using public and academic libraries. For example, not all of the items in the collection may be cataloged, and you will probably not be able to browse the collection. The organization may have limited hours. There may rules around what you can bring into the reading area: some will allow only pencils and not pens, and you should plan to leave your food and drinks at home.

To prepare for your visit, explore the organization's website to see what collections they hold. Check the organization's hours. And then contact the organization to make an appointment, as not all archives are open without appointment.

Primary vs Secondary Sources Video (Vermont Tech, Hartness Library 2017)

Photographic Sources

Many of the sites mentioned in the Online Primary Source Collections list include historical photographs. These sites might also be useful: