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).  

Also because primary sources are interdisciplinary it may be helpful to check out the Primary Source section of the History Subject Guide. 

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. 

 Resources for Primary & Secondary texts

AM Explorer (Adam Matthew Digital)
Presents a wide range of primary sources spanning from the 15th to the 21st century. This collection gives access to over sixty unique digital collection produced by Adam Matthew.

Age of Exploration (Adam Matthew Digital)
Documents the history of European maritime exploration from 1420 to 1920. Features digital copies of rare manuscripts and early printed materials, government documents and reports, scientific papers and surveys, logbooks, maps, diaries, letters, personal accounts, artwork, film footage, photographs, and objects. Thematic areas introduce key documents. Search directories index people, places, expeditions, and ships. Companion essays by and video interviews with experts provide historical context. Sourced from libraries, museums, and archives in the US, UK, Canada, New Zealand, and France.

British Periodicals (ProQuest)
Provides access to British periodicals published from the 17th through the early 20th century with the majority of content from the 19th century. Covers a broad range of topics.

Burney Collection Newspapers, 17th-18th Century (Gale)
Features the newspapers and news pamphlets gathered by the Reverend Charles Burney (1757-1817), representing the largest single collection of 17th and 18th century English news media.

Digital Library of Classic Protestant Texts (Alexander Street Press)
Presents full-text historical documents which are of a religious nature, such as confessional, polemical, catechetical writings of the 16th and 17th centuries by authors from the Western European Protestant tradition. Includes Biblical commentaries, works of systematic theology, sermons, and an array of tracts from various denominations. Texts are presented in their original languages of Latin, English, French and German.

Digital Library of the Catholic Reformation (Alexander Street Press)
Presents full-text historical documents which are of a religious nature, such as doctrinal, apologetical, and devotional writings of the 16th and 17th centuries by authors from the Western European Catholic tradition. Includes theological treatises, works on the lives of the saints and the Bible, and spirituality from various religious orders. Texts are presented in their original languages of Latin, English, French, Italian, Spanish, and German.

Eighteenth Century Collections Online: Parts I&II (Gale)
Offers full text access to nearly every English-language and foreign-language title printed in the United Kingdom, alongside thousands of works published in the Americas, between 1701 and 1800. Consists of books, pamphlets, broadsides, and ephemera. Multiple editions of individual works are offered where they add scholarly value or contain important differences.

Electronic Enlightenment (Oxford University Press)
Provides access to the web of correspondence between the greatest thinkers and writers of the long 18th century and their families and friends, bankers and booksellers, patrons and publishers. Includes letters and documents, document sources such as manuscripts and early printed editions, scholarly annotations, and links to biographies, dictionaries, encyclopedias, newspapers, and other online resources.

Empire Online (Adam Matthew Digital)
Contains documents spanning five centuries, 1492 to 1962, including a variety of manuscripts and printed and visual source materials for the study of 'Empire' and its theories, practices and consequences. Material is accompanied by scholarly essays, chronology links shared with a Global Commodities collection, brief biographies, external links, and interactive maps.

Literary Manuscripts Leeds (Adam Matthew Digital)
Includes manuscripts of 17th and 18th century verse held in the celebrated Brotherton Collection at the University of Leeds. Alongside original compositions are copied verses, translations, songs and riddles.

Literary Print Culture (Adam Matthew Digital)
Includes documents dating from 1554 to the 21st century, detailing the workings of the early book trade, the printing and publishing community, the establishment of legal requirements for copyright provisions and the history of bookbinding

Literature Criticism from 1400-1800 (Gale)
Turn to this authoritative international resource for complete critical coverage of the careers and works of the greatest writers and thinkers of the late Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Restoration eras. Detailed entries offer students and other researchers access to a variety of important interpretations of historical periods, literary trends and topics, and the achievements of noteworthy individuals. Provides full-text or excerpted criticism reproduced from books, magazines, literary reviews, newspapers and scholarly journals.

Orlando: Women's Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present (Cambridge University Press)
Provides biographical and critical accounts of the lives and works of women writers from the British Isles together with contextual materials, timelines, and bibliographies relevant to critical and historical readings. Also includes material on selected non-British and international women, and British and international men, whose writings are relevant to the historical context.

Renaissance World  Limitations on Use
features specially-commissioned, peer-reviewed new content that supports the teaching and learning of this historical time period. Covering the 14th to the 18th century, key subject areas include Art and Architecture, Economy and Commerce, Environment, Literature and Drama, Politics and Governance, Religion, and Society.

State Papers Online (Gale)
Provides primary sources covering Britain's diplomatic relations and trade in Europe and with the Ottoman Empire, Russia, Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
Villanova's access includes the following:
Part I: The Tudors, 1509-1603: State Papers Domestic
Part II: The Tudors, 1509-1603: State Papers Foreign, Scotland, Borders, Ireland and Registers of the Privy Council
Part III: The Stuarts and Commonwealth, James I - Anne I, 1603-1714: State Papers Domestic
Part IV: The Stuarts and Commonwealth, James I - Anne I, 1603-1714: State Papers Foreign, Ireland and Registers of the Privy Council
Eighteenth Century, 1714-1782, Part 1: State Papers Domestic, Military, Naval and Registers of the Privy Council

Women Writers Online (Northeastern University - Women Writers Project)
Offers a full text collection of works in English by pre-Victorian women writers. Covers a variety of genres and topics. All texts were originally published between 1526 and 1850.