Primary Sources

Primary sources in most subject areas  are nice and straightforward.  You do a study or run an experiment then you write an article or sometimes a book.  An article or book based on research that the author or authors did is a primary source in the sciences, health sciences, sociology & psychology, and professional fields such as education and business.

Things are a bit more complicated in history, in large part because the definition of primary source is a bit of a moving target. For example, sources accepted as primary in ancient history are not acceptable in more modern historical fields.   Despite the difficulty of determining what is and isn’t a primary source, it’s absolutely necessary that you start learning to recognize them when you see them because primary sources are the basic building blocks of scholarly research.  In this reading, we’ll look at primary sources for the ancient world and how to find them;  we’ll also look at finding primary sources for more recent periods of history.

A quick review:

In the reading on Information Types and Formats, we’ll look at three important categories of information:

  • Sources classified by audience (scholarly, popular & trade)
  • Sources classified by closeness (primary and secondary)
  • Sources classified by quality measure.
The reading on Information Types and Formats defines primary sources as those that are closest to an original event, an  original time period, original research or an original idea.

 Common primary sources for history include:

  • Journals, diaries, letters
  • Speeches
  • Interviews/oral histories
  • Memoirs/autobiographies
  • Statistics
  • Inscriptions

Primary sources may also include:

  • Photographs & video recordings in various formats (including YouTube)
  • Audio recordings in various formats
  • Objects or artifacts:  art, tools, clothing, roads, buildings, houses, pottery, books & manuscripts
  • Some government publications

In some cases, you can use sources such as Twitter or newspapers or blogs as well as other  popular sources like magazines as evidence for what people were talking/thinking/reading about during the time in question.

  • Newspapers
  • Magazines
  • Advertisements
  • Maps
  • Twitter
  • Blogs
  • Facebook
  • Fiction

Primary sources in ancient history

Historians studying medieval through modern periods often wonder at material considered primary sources by ancient historians.  This has to do with the survival (or not) of the sources.

Example:  Herodotus, often called the father of history, wrote a work called The Histories in which he looked at the roots of the Greco-Persian wars.  Herodotus was born about the time the wars were ending (c. 480 BCE).   The Histories are considered a primary source because he did interviews and talked with people who were there.  Most of The Histories has survived.  However, while there are fragments that date to the 1st century C.E., the earliest extant (= surviving), mostly complete, manuscript is from the 10th century C.E.  This is true of most Greek sources.  The major exception is the New Testament:  there are almost complete manuscripts dating to about the late fourth to early 5th century with fragments dating back to the 1st century C.E.  So, even though Herodotus used  primary sources to write his Histories, it’s certainly possible people added or subtracted information in the 1,400 years or so between his death and the oldest surviving manuscript.

NOTE:  a manuscript is any document that is handwritten as opposed to printed.

Because Latin was used by the western church, the manuscript copies of  primary sources for Roman history are often several hundred years earlier than sources in Greek.   Greek was used by the eastern church, but many earlier manuscripts were lost as the Byzantine Empire crumbled.  A number of important authors, such as Aristotle, were transmitted to the West by the Islamic Caliphate and its successor states.   In the past 25 years or so, some manuscripts have come to light in areas previously part of the Soviet bloc and in areas in the Mideast, such as the Monastery of St. Catherine’s in the Sinai. (Check out the very old Greek  New Testament that was discovered there:

A second issue is that often the best source is a later source.  Many scholars consider Arrian the best source for information on Alexander the Great even though he wrote more than 400 years after Alexander’s death in 323 BCE.  Why is Arrian considered the best source?  The main reason is that we know Arrian had access to primary sources, such as writings by Alexander’s generals, that  didn’t survive.  The other reason is that Arrian had experience fighting as an officer in the Roman army.  The theory is that he would therefore have had  a better understanding of Alexander’s strategy  and tactics than writers who lacked his experience.  The oldest surviving text of Arrian’s work on Alexander, which was written in Greek,  dates to about the 11th century C.E.

Are there any “truly” primary sources in ancient history?  Yes.  If you mean written sources, there are numerous inscriptions.    The Assyrians left libraries full of baked clay tablets filled with cuneiform writing.  In Egypt, papyri survive from the time of the pharaohs through the time of the Roman Empire and later.  The Egyptian Pharaohs and nobles prepared tombs whose decoration often included inscriptions.  Many ancient civilizations left inscriptions and art done in stone.  We even have the ostraka (pot sherds)  the Athenians used when they voted to exile the famous admiral Themistocles, son of Neocles.  We get our word ostracize from this practice.  These are all primary sources in the strictest sense.

Ostraka used to exile Themistocles

By Giovanni Dall’Orto. (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

Artifacts are important primary sources.  They’re especially important for groups like the Celts who didn’t leave much of a written record.  Artifacts can be tomb paintings, road systems, pottery, jewelry, clay tablets (the tablet itself, not just the writing), wall paintings, legionary campsites, buried cities like Pompeii and much more.

Primary sources in medieval to modern history

The closer you get to our times , the greater the number and variety of primary sources.   The internet has made it much, much easier to find and use primary sources, but you need to carefully evaluate primary sources found on the web to make sure the quality is acceptable.  You also need to know what, if any changes have been made to the sources.  Finally, for objects, you are looking at a two dimensional rendering of a three dimensional object.

Finding primary sources

Ancient History

You can use many of the methods listed below to find sources.  However, the easiest way to begin looking for primary sources in ancient history is to use an encyclopedia. If you just need one or two examples, Wikipedia is fine.  However, if you need more sources or you have been told not to use Wikipedia, check out one of our specialty encyclopedias, such as the Encyclopedia of Ancient History.  The library has access to  encyclopedias and other sources in most fields, online and in print.  To find the eresources,    go to  the library’s home page:  Click on the  Article Databases icon (blue pancakes).  Click on  Subjects, then click on Reference.  Credo, The Cambridge Companions Online, and the Oxford Reference Online are all good general sources.  Credo  has basic sources in most fields.

Medieval to Modern History

Find government documents

Government documents are an excellent source of information from the Middle Ages on.  (They can also be useful in some ancient societies as well.)  While this discussion refers to the West, they also survive in the Middle East and Asia.  The further back you go, the more difficult they can be to find and access.  They also tend to be in Latin and other languages most students need to have translated.  You can find some links to translated sources in Wikipedia, but books on the topic are often a better choice for the best translations.

For U.S. government publications, check out the research guide at:  You can also try a search engine.  Use regular Google, Bing, etc.

NOTE:  as a general rule, use Google, Bing and other general search engines to find primary sources for history.  Use Google Scholar to find  published articles and books that are primary sources.

Search for named sources

Use a search engine such as GoogleBing, Yahoo and DuckDuckGo.  This approach works best for specific documents with easy to search titles:

  • US Constitution
  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • Treaty of Versailles
  • Kyoto Protocol
  • Constitution of Athens (Aristotle)

 Find digital collections

Do NOT pay for access to sources until you’ve double checked with your professor and your subject librarian and have made ABSOLUTELY sure there is no free access AND you don’t have time to wait for Interlibrary Loan (usually 24-48 hours, Monday – Friday.)

Most digital collections of primary sources are available for free from libraries, state and private archives and museums.  There are also a growing number  of commercial groups digitizing information.  These groups range from  newspaper and magazine publishers to database companies that provide access to specific groups of resources, such as early American magazines.

Newspapers, such as the New York Times, often provide some free content, but expect you to pay for full access.   Many newspapers now allow people to buy temporary access that includes a  number of downloads.  Some papers, such as the New York Times, have special college rates for both short term and annual subscriptions.  Database companies charge for access.  With a little bit of work, you should be able to get most primary sources for free or at least for a low cost.  Work with your professor and subject librarian to find free access. NOTE:  As of May 1, the Provost’s office will be providing access to articles (no ads, etc.) from the New York Times, from 1851 – present.  Go to:  NOTE:  As of the last time I checked, you will get a Connection is not private” warning.  To continue, click on “ADVANCED”  to the left of the  blue “Back to Safety” button.  You’ll get a paragraph explaining the problem (problem with security certificate, then a link to proceed.   Click the link and follow the directions.   YOU MUST USE YOUR MAIL.WEBER.EDU EMAIL ADDRESS TO SIGN UP.

A BRIEF ASIDE ON THE VALUE OF GETTING AN UNDERGRADUATE RESEARCH GRANT – I’d like to encourage people to pursue undergraduate research grants.  History majors (and most other majors)  have had good luck getting travel money to research in archives and special collections that are not available online.  Getting a grant looks very good on your resume.  If you go to graduate school, it shows you know how to carry an academic research project to the end.  If you don’t go to graduate school, having a grant shows that you are a self starter who can plan a project and carry it out (plus, you convinced people to give you money.)  For more information, see:  You can also ask me.

Looking for newspapers?   Chronicling America, from the Library of Congress, provides access to, or  information about, newspapers from 1690  through 1922.  Stewart Library has a subscription to Newspaper Archive, which covers U.S. and some international newspapers from the 18th century to the present.  Also check out the Digital Newspapers in the United States research guide.  This is an exhaustive list of digitized newspapers by state, and then county.

What’s so important about 1922/23?   You will see a lot of free publications that end in December 1922.  In the United States, material published before 1923 is no longer protected by copyright.  You still have to give credit, but you can use a large amount of information without getting permission.

WARNING:  Resources that are now in the public domain (either never or no longer protected by copyright) can have  more recent introductions, discussions, etc.  This newer information is copyrighted so you may only quote shorter amounts of the copyright portion.

Stewart Library has subscriptions to  several commercial databases that provide access to newspapers and magazines that date from the 1700s to the present day.  Go to the library’s website:, click on the blue pancakes icon, then click on  n News under the subject listing for newspapers.  For older magazines, go to “A” on the alphabetical listing and choose American Antiquarian Society (AAS) Historical Periodicals Collection.  JSTOR will have articles from magazines and journals dating back to 1665 (Philosophical Transactions, which was & is a science journal.  Science was then mostly called natural philosophy.) 


The easiest way to find a digital collection is to ask someone.  Professors usually know the digital collections in their subject area.  Librarians either know of, or know how to find, digital collections in many areas.

The next easiest way to find a digital collection is to use a search engine such as Google.

You may search by  subject, location or both.


digital newspaper  collections (pretty bad)

digital newspapers California (better)

digital newspapers Sacramento CA (best)

Watch out for commercial sites that charge for information that government and educational sites provide for free.  Never pay money without checking with a professor or librarian first.

To limit sites to educational, government or organizations, use a domain name limit.  A domain name is:  .edu (education), .org (organization), .gov (government), .com (commercial), .uk (United Kingdom), etc.

domain  search:

     jazz digital collections site:edu  (you could also try site:gov or site:org – you can stack domains, but I think it works best to search each separately.)

If you know a specific site has information, you’re not just sure where, you can narrow the domain search:


Use OneSearch

Do a search and then limit to type of content, such as Archival Material

Use the Include results from outside your library’s collection  search to look for archival material beyond Weber State.

Find specialized local collections

You can often use a search engine to find specialized local collections available on the web – or at least find where they’re kept. Examples of local collections include the Ogden Prisoner of War  Camp collection at the WSU Library,  the Utah Ski Archive at the University of Utah Libraries, the Eurodocs collection at the BYU library and many more.

NOTE:  use Google NOT Google Scholar

For example:  a Google search on Utah diaries pulls up links to several collections – some web accessible, some available at various Utah colleges and universities.   To find the ski archives, search for Utah ski archives, and so on.

Find materials in a foreign language

Search engines such as Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo and Yahoo, work best for English language (and translated) sources.  If you want sources in a foreign language, you need to search in that language.  You should also try a search engine specific to that language, such as Google France  (

For example:  to find letters written by Napoleon to Josephine, search:  napoleon lettres josephine.

For more political letters try Napoleon lettres relations extérieures.

Try different search engines.  They all produce slightly different results.  This is especially true if you normally use Google.  Google will try to outlets you and may discard valuable links.  Other good search engines to try are:  Bing, Yahoo and DuckDuckGo.   Be sure to try the Advanced Search features where available.

NOTE:  DuckDuckGo is useful because it doesn’t track your searches, which means it will show all results, not what it thinks you want.  If you want to stay with Google, try clearing out your search history first.

 Use a Specialty Search Engine:

Google News Archive Search – This was a very nice feature that allowed you to search old newspapers and provided aids such a timeline, etc.  The News Archive no longer exists as a separate entity; however, the content is still available if you are willing to work for it.  You can try a regular Google search. This works best if you have a specific topic (for example:  silver mining Nevada Comstock Lode).    Once you have results, click the down arrow on the right of the search box and use the advanced features, particularly the date fields.  NOTE:  Try doing a OneSearch search and limit to newspapers.  Most newspaper databases only go back to the 1990s for full text, but the articles in our Newspaper Archives database go back to at least the 18th century, and there are other exceptions.

 Google Earth  – Satellite images – requires a free software download, but gives great views of terrain.  Educational and other groups have already provided maps of important historical events such as the campaigns of Alexander the Great, U.S. Civil War battles, etc.  After you download the Google Earth software, you can either play around or download one of the programs that show battles, etc.  Look for a .kmz file.

If you’re planning on teaching, Google Earth for Educators has a lot of good information and there are some grants available from Google and other sources.

Image searching:  GoogleBing and Yahoo all have good image searches.  Also try:  Wikimedia Commons,  Google Art Project, and Flickr Creative Commons (be careful to stay on the Creative Commons part of the website.)  Finally, many museums are now allowing non-profit use of their materials.  Try to find a museum covering your time period or area or a general museum such as the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, The British Museum and The Louvre.  Also check out the library’s ARTSTOR database.  Think of it as JSTOR for images.

Audio/video searching: try Google  and  Bing and Yahoo.  Also try Youtube.

Try a directory

The Hidden Web”  (also called deep or invisible web) consists of sites that search engines can’t find, usually due to the type of files they contain, such as database files.    Many of these sites are very useful.  The best way to find them is to use directory listings.  You access the listings either by choosing subjects or using a search engine that’s limited to that site.  The sites listed below all list hidden web sites of use to historians. One good general directory is ipl2 (Internet Public Library) (this unfortunately stopped updating Summer of 2015, but the information is still available.)   Yahoo Directory is another good general directory as well as one of the oldest directories around.    Search engines such as Google and Bing index the content of some, but not all, of these sites.

The WWW-VL  History Central Catalog  – The WWW Virtual Libraries are the granddaddies/mommas of web guides/directories they date back to the days when the web was text only – no graphics – ever heard of Lynx?)  and most are still very good.  From Albania  to Zimbabwe, from  Finding Aids to Scholarly Exchange, this is the place to begin.   NOTE:  some categories are not updated regularly and have a lot of dead links.

The Internet History Source Books  – These are excellent places  to begin looking for translated history sources on the web.  Quality does vary, but is  overall excellent.  They do have problems with keeping links updated, but it’s usually easy to take the source information and do a Google/Bing, etc. search to find new links.

Best of History Sites  (now:  EdTech Teacher Best of History Websites) was an award-winning portal to the best history sites on the net and is still worth a look.  It provides a list of sites and search engines that provide access to “hidden web” sites, which are often useful to historians.  It also links to sites on lesson plans and teaching with technology.

Digital History: using new technologies to enhance teaching and research  from the University of Houston.  The title says it all.  American history only.

The PBS website can be a good place to find background information and sometimes primary sources or a bibliography listing them.  For example:  African American World,  Marie Antoinette & the French RevolutionFrom Jesus to Christ:  The First Christians.  National Geographic and the History Channel can have good background information as well.

The BBC History website has a lot of historical information, including primary sources.  Focus is on British and European history but includes good materials on other areas.

 Finding non-digital primary sources

Finding primary sources in books

Primary sources in book form can be either the book itself,  such as an autobiography, a book from the time period being researched, or an edited version of a journal or letters, or the book may be a collection of primary sources.  Collections can vary from important documents from all periods of history to documents relating to a specific time and  place.

Use the library catalog  or Worldcat  to find these sources.  Use terms such as primary, sources, and documents plus the era you  wish to research.  Ask a librarian for help if you’re having problems.

Finding primary sources in archives & special collections

1.  Ask an expert in the field – a professor, Special Collections curator or librarian.

2.  Use a bibliography (book, encyclopedia  or web or literature review in a journal) on your topic.

3.  Do a web search – many libraries list important collections on their websites.

Using Wikipedia

Having problems finding primary sources?  Check out Wikipedia.  A decent article on a historical subject will include primary sources, both written and visual and often translated.  Good articles will actually quote from the sources, but all should at least include them in the references.  EXCEPTION:  the only extant sources haven’t been translated or are  not generally available – for example, an untranslated papyrus that hadn’t been published in print or online.

WARNING:  you need to be careful.  Wikipedia entries too often link to old, out of copyright, translations.  If the translation isn’t 1890 or newer, avoid it.  Earlier translations, even if accurate, tend to be in archaic English difficult for many students.  AND  if you see the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica used as a reference, especially if it’s used more than once, run, don’t walk, away from the article.

Evaluating primary sources

Unless you are dealing with a primary source in its original form, such as letters or manuscripts where you actually have the physical objecta, the source you use has probably been adapted to a new format, edited or otherwise manipulated.  You need to consider these changes when you use the source.

Things to consider:

  1.  Who is responsible for the changes?  An expert in the field?  An interested amateur?  A group with a bias?
  2.   What kinds of changes were made?  Is it an exact scan of the original? If it’s an exact copy, does it show all sides of the object?  Is the digitization good enough to pick up erasures, watermarks etc.?  Is it a transcription?  A translation?  A black and white photograph of a colored object?  An outline drawing of an archaeological site?
  3. Do others use, applaud and agree with the version you’re looking at?  Can you find reviews?  Are they positive or negative?
  4.  Does the editor/adapter clearly show/discuss any changes made?  Is there a critical apparatus? (a section discussing why the editor/adapter made the choices s/he did.)

When you use internet versions of ancient writers, you need to be very careful.  Many of the free translations were made in the 18th and 19th century. While some of the translations are acceptable (stick to ones dated 1890 to the present), the older translations are often unacceptable because we simply know more about translating ancient (and modern) languages.  Meanings can change from older to newer translations.  This can be as simple as older sources using more polite terms in the translation than were used in the original.  Also, they are continuing to find papyri and other sources that impact the translation and can change its meaning.

Finally, when older sources are transcribed to the web, things such as footnotes and any critical apparatus are often left off.  You also have no way of telling how accurate the transcription is.  Humans and machines both  make mistakes.  So, use a reliable source.

For other things to consider, check out our general evaluation guide.

Leave a comment

Filed under Primary Sources

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s