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HIST 1260: Modern America

Search Strategies for Primary Sources

Primary source research requires a slightly different approach to searching. Here are a few tips/strategies: 

Start by doing some background reading or "pre-research": The more you know about key events, people, laws, and especially common terminology used during the time period you are researching the more successful your research will be. See the "Getting to Know Your Topic" page in this guide for help.

Limit to specific time periods: When searching for primary sources online always remember to use date ranges (usually on the advanced search page) to focus your search.

  • Depending on the time period, remember that it took time for news to get reported or to spread to other parts of the country. It often helps to include a few weeks after an event to ensure you get results.
  • Start with broader search times but limit to a narrow time period. For example: if searching for articles about the Massacre at Wounded Knee, search for: "wounded knee" limit to the date range of 12/29/1890-1/12/1891 (the word massacre may not have been used immediately after the event, but the location)

Use primary source keywords to find primary sources:  Use search terms that reflect the types of primary sources you’re looking for, such as: diaries, pamphlets, correspondence, speeches, manuscripts, personal narratives, interviews, firsthand, eyewitness, sources, etc.

For example: slave AND diary  |  suffrage AND pamphlets  |  united states and race relations AND sources

Books/Anthologies of Primary Sources

What is a Primary Source?

Primary sources are items that are directly associated with their producer or user and the period in which they are created.  They reflect the authority and perspective of someone who directly experiences what they are detailing. 

Primary sources can be found in:

  • Collections housed in libraries or archives
  • Digital format through online databases
  • Freely available collections on the Internet
  • Published in books and microforms

Evaluating a Primary Source

The Library of Congress has a great tool for helping you evaluate potential primary sources:

Library Databases

Digital Collections Outside BGSU