Understanding primary sources 

If you are seeking to learn about the past, primary sources of information are those that provide first-hand accounts of the events, practices, or conditions you are researching. In general, these are documents that were created by the witnesses or first recorders of these events at about the time they occurred, and include diaries, letters, reports, photographs, creative works, financial records, memos, and newspaper articles (to name just a few types).  

Primary sources also include first-hand accounts that were documented later, such as autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories. However, the most useful primary sources are usually considered to be those that were created closest to the time period you’re researching.  

Determining which kinds of documents constitute primary sources depends upon the topic you’re researching. (For example, sometimes the same book or article could be considered a primary source for one research topic and a secondary source for a different topic.)


For Example: The painting of Washington Crossing The Delaware, by Emanuel Leutze was painted in 1851. 

This painting is both a primary and secondary source depending on what you are researching.


It is a primary source if you are studying the painter Emanuel Leutze or art and paintings from the late 19th century.


It is a secondary source if you are studying the American Revolution or the actual event of Washington crossing the Delaware, this is because the events depicted in the painting took place in 1776, over 50 years before the painting was painted.  Emanuel Leutze was not present for the events he is depicting so it cannot be a primary source for those events. 

  Library Resources

  Confidential Print: Middle East, 1839-1969 (Adam Matthew Digital)  Tutorial
Offers digital access to the Confidential Print series issued by the British Government for distribution to members of the Foreign Office, Cabinet, and British diplomatic missions abroad. The series encompasses essential documents issued or received by the British Foreign and Colonial Offices. Files include reports, dispatches, correspondence, political summaries, economic analyses, and descriptions of leading personalities. The collection comprises documents on the countries of the Levant and the Arabian peninsula, Iran, Turkey, Egypt and Sudan. It covers watershed moments such as the Middle East Conference of 1921, the mandates for Palestine and Mesopotamia, the partition of Palestine, the Suez Crisis, and the Arab-Israel conflict, all from the perspective of British government officials. Sourced from the originals in the collections of The National Archives in Kew. See Foreign Office Files for the Middle East, 1971-1981 for complementary sources.

  Foreign Office Files for India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, 1947-1980 (Adam Matthew Digital)  Tutorial
Contains British Foreign Office files dealing with India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Digitized documents comprise dispatches, reports, correspondence, political and economic analyses, newspaper cuttings, maps, and photographs. Topics covered include India’s independence and partition, the Nehru era, the Indo-Pakistani war, military rule in Pakistan, the independence of Bangladesh, Afghanistan and the Cold War, and the development of nuclear weapons in the region. Sourced from the originals in the collections of The National Archives in Kew.

  Foreign Office Files for the Middle East, 1971-1981 (Adam Matthew Digital)  Tutorial
Features British Government documents from the Foreign and Commonwealth Offices, the Prime Minister’s Office and Defence Intelligence files on Middle Eastern countries including Israel, Palestine, the Arabian peninsula, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. Digitized documents comprise dispatches, reports, correspondence, political summaries, economic analyses, newspaper cuttings, maps, and profiles of leading personalities. Topics covered include the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the oil crisis of the early seventies, the Lebanese Civil War, the Camp David Accords, the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War. Sourced from the originals in the collections of The National Archives in Kew. See Confidential Print: Middle East, 1839-1969 for complementary sources.

  Jewish Life in America c1654-1954 (Adam Matthew Digital)
Features digital copies of family papers, personal collections, organizational records, and other unique sources that trace the history of Jewish life in America from early settlements in 17th century New York and Philadelphia to Jewish involvement in the 20th century civil rights movement. Highlights include the records of the Jewish Immigration Information Bureau and the Gratz family papers. Also included are historical photographs that illustrate Jewish life in America and selected American Jewish Year Book articles as well as an interactive map that visualizes Jewish population distributions over time. Companion essays provide historical context. Sourced from the collections of the American Jewish Historical Society in New York.

  Middle Eastern and North African Newspapers (East View)
Features archives of selected Middle Eastern and North African newspapers spanning from the second half of the 19th century to the early 20th century. Most newspapers are written in Arabic but a few English, French, and bilingual editions are included. Over a third of the titles are from Syria. Lebanese newspapers are also strongly represented. The remaining titles are from Iraq, Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Palestine. Most of the collection consists of out-of-copyright, orphaned content, but five subscription titles, which are not available to the Villanova community, are also included. Use the Arabic keyboard to enter search terms in Arabic. Search results appear in image and text format. Open access is made possible through the generous support of the Center for Research Libraries and its member institutions.

  RAMBI: The Index of Articles on Jewish Studies (National Library of Israel)
Indexes journal and magazine articles in various fields of Jewish studies. Covers articles in English, Hebrew, Yiddish, and the major European languages.

  U.K. Parliamentary Papers (ProQuest)
Features U.K. parliamentary papers including public petitions, bills and acts, Command Papers, House of Lord Papers, Hansard, journals, and debates. Includes documents from the late 17th century to the end of the 20th century.

Web Resources 

  • American Memory (Library of Congress)Includes a number of collections of print and non-print materials (photographs, posters, archival sources) pertaining to immigration, such as Pioneering the Upper Midwest and The Chinese in California, 1850-1925.
  • Aspiration, Acculturation, and Impact : Immigration to the United States, 1789-1930.  "Immigration has shaped the contours of this nation's history from its founding to the present day. Immigration has shaped the nation's cities, its institutions, industries, and laws, its literature and its culture. Harvard's world-renowned library and museum holdings reflect these realities through guidebooks, ethnic publications, policy documents, diaries, photographs, and organizatonal records that chronicle the continuing impact of immigration on the United States." Sidney Verba, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Research Professor and Founder of the Open Collections Program at Harvard University.  Immigration to the US, 1789-1930 is a web-based collection of selected historical materials from Harvard's libraries, archives, and museums that documents voluntary immigration to the United States from the signing of the Constitution to the onset of the Great Depression. For Internet users worldwide, Immigration to the US provides unparalleled, free and open digital access to a significant selection of unique source materials—more than 410,000 pages, 100 individually cataloged maps, and 7,800 photographs.

  • Immigration Challenges for New Americans : Photographs, maps detailing immigration patterns, official documents, song sheets and streaming audio recount the immigrant experience in America, their reasons for leaving their homelands, and the reactions of established Americans. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

  • Immigration History Research Center. An "interdisciplinary research center in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota. Founded in 1965, the IHRC promotes research on international migration with a special emphasis on immigrant and refugee life in the U.S."

  • John Novak Digital Interview Collection. Consists of interviews about immigration, migration, and the Civil Rights Movement. The interviewees, who range in age from 20 to 90, speak of their experiences moving to and within the United States. Listen to interviews from Esperanza Perez whose Mexican mother crossed the border to give birth to her daughter so that she could be an American citizen, Earnest Stamps who recounts his train ride to Detroit and his wonderment upon arrival at the Michigan Central Station, or Yvonne Revell who was a participant in the Greensboro Sit-in demonstrations. The project began in 2004 as part of a Teacher-Scholar award received by Professor Dena Scher in the Psychology/ Social Sciences Department of Marygrove College. In 2006, librarian Michael Barnes adapted the digital interviews into a special collection within the auspices of the Marygrove College Library.

  • Red Star Line Museum (Belgium).  Between 1873 and 1934, the legendary Red Star Line transported more than two million European passengers to America. At the port in Antwerp, Belgium, emigrants in steerage class underwent disinfection and medical examinations while clerks scrutinized their documents. Today three warehouses stand as a testament to this emigrant experience. In 2012, Red Star Line / People on the Move will open a new museum at this historic location. It will be a place of remembrance, experience, debate and research into international mobility, both past and present....Millions of passengers travelled with Red Star Line, they told hundreds of stories to their (grand)children about their journey. Read selected stories.
  • NYPL Digital Collection
    This site is a living database with new materials added every day, featuring prints, photographs, maps, manuscripts, streaming video, and more. Try searching for "Immigrant" or Immigrant coupled with a specific nationality and see what you find. 

Digitized Letters & Correspondence

  •  The Hathi Trust
    The Hathi Trust is a huge digital repository, but you can use it to search specifically for correspondence by going to the advanced search page. In the first search box put “Correspondence” and select “Subject” form the dropdown menu next to the search box. In the second search box put “poetry” and again select “subject.” The scroll down and tick the box for “Full view only” and then hit “Search.”
  • American Founding Era Collection
    A gateway into one of the great conversations in history. These newly prepared digital editions of the papers of many of the major figures of the early republic are presented in a fully searchable and interoperable online environment.
  • The First World War Poetry Digital ArchiveThe First World War Poetry Digital Archive is an online repository of over 7000 items of text, images, audio, and video for teaching, learning, and research.
    • The heart of the archive consists of collections of highly valued primary material from major poets of the period, including Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Robert Graves, Vera Brittain, and Edward Thomas.
  • Correspondences from The Rossetti Archive

    The Rossetti Archive facilitates the scholarly study of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the painter, designer, writer, and translator who was, according to both John Ruskin and Walter Pater, the most important and original artistic force in the second half of the nineteenth century in Great Britain.

  • Nineteenth Century Scholarship Online

    NINES is a federated search across a number of related digital projects around the nineteenth century. It includes access to curated digital correspondences to major poets including Swinburne, Blake, Dickinson, Hunt, Arnold and Arnold.

  • Phono Post

    A digital archive of recorded audio messages sent through via post sponsored jointly by Princeton, the Einstein Foundation and the Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School.