Challenge Guide for U.S. History - Housley/Nyland - St. Mary's: What are Primary/Secondary Sources?

Primary Sources on the Web


The photo on the right, Two 7 Year Old Newsies, circa 1910, is from the US National Archives on Flickr.

Two 7 Year Old Newsies, Profane and Smart, Selling Sunday in Nashville, Tennessee

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.

Library Databases with Primary Source Content on United States History

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

Search for Resources Tutorial

Search for Resources Tutorial

Check the Table of Contents of this tutorial for the section on primary resources. It will only take you a few minutes to review, and it may help you to further contextualize the use of primary sources.