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 paiting of Washington Crossing The Delaware, by Emanuel Leutze was painted in 1851.
This paiting 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 centurary.
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.
Provides access to the major 19th century African American newspapers including The Christian Recorder (1861-1902), Freedom's Journal (1827-1829), The North Star (1847-1851), and Frederick Douglass' Paper (1851-1863).
African American Studies Center (Oxford University Press)
Contains a selection of African American studies resources ranging from the authoritative Encyclopedia of African American History to the African American National Biography project. Selected primary sources, maps, images, charts, and tables round out the collection.
American Periodicals (ProQuest)
Provides access to the full-text of American magazines and journals published from the colonial period to the early 20th century.
America’s Historical Newspapers (Readex)
Includes full-text of selected early American newspapers published between 1690 and 1922. Villanova University has access to series 1 through 5 and 7.
Black Abolitionist Papers (ProQuest)
Features newspapers articles, manuscripts, letters, pamphlets, proceedings, and books written by African Americans actively involved in the movement to end slavery in the United States between 1830 and 1865.
Black Drama, 2nd Edition (Alexander Street Press)
Contains the full text of works by playwrights from North America, English-speaking Africa, the Caribbean, and other African diaspora countries together with detailed information about productions, theaters, production companies, and other ephemera related to the plays. Many of the works are rare, hard-to-find, or out of print. Includes a large number of previously unpublished plays by writers such as Langston Hughes, Derek Walcott, Alice Childress, Amiri Baraka, Zora Neale Hurston, and many others. Coverage goes back to the middle of the 19th century.
British Periodicals (ProQuest)
Provides access to British periodicals ranging from the 17th through the early 20th centuries 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.
Columbia Granger's World of Poetry
The Columbia Granger’s World of Poetry currently contains 250,000 poems in full text and 450,000 citations, in addition to several important new features, commentaries, bibliographies, notes on form and a glossary of prosodic terms. The poems in full text are the most widely-read in the English language, as well as in Spanish, French, German, and Italian. Included also is poetry in Portuguese, Polish, Yiddish, Welsh, Gaelic, and other Celtic languages, as well as poems in the ancient languages: Anglo-Saxon, Provencal and Latin.
Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) Primary Source Sets
Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) Primary Source Sets are designed to help students develop critical thinking skills by exploring topics in history, literature, and culture through primary sources. Drawing online materials from libraries, archives, and museums across the United States, the sets use letters, photographs, posters, oral histories, video clips, sheet music, and more. Each set includes a topic overview, ten to fifteen primary sources, links to related resources, and a teaching guide.
Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans, 1639-1800 (Readex)
Features most of the books, pamphlets and broadsides printed in America between 1639 and 1800. Titles were selected based on Charles Evans’ American Bibliography.
Early American Imprints, Series II: Shaw-Shoemaker, 1801-1819 (Readex)
Features most of the books, pamphlets, and broadsides published in America from 1801 through 1819. Contains many state papers and government reports. Titles were selected based on Ralph Shaw’s and Richard H. Shoemaker’s American Bibliography.
Early English Books Online (Chadwyck-Healy)
Provides access to digital page images of virtually every work printed in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and British North America and works in English printed elsewhere from 1473-1700. Includes books, pamphlets, manuscripts and newspapers. For searchable text of selected titles see Early English Books Online -Text Creation Partnership.
Eighteenth Century Collections Online (Gale)
Offers full-text access to every significant English-language and foreign-language title printed in the United Kingdom, along with thousands of important works from the Americas, between 1701 and 1800. Consists of books, pamphlets, broadsides, and ephemera. Where they add scholarly value or contain important differences, multiple editions of each individual work are offered.
New York Times: 1851- (ProQuest Historical Newspapers)
Provides full-text access to the complete New York Times archive except for the most current three years. Use Nexis-Uni or ABI/INFORM for access to current content.
Literature Online (ProQuest)
Features a digital library of English and American poetry, drama, and prose. Provides access to literary criticism indexed in ABELL and MLA International Bibliography and includes selective access to the full-text of academic journals. Also includes full-text access to a collection of dictionaries, encyclopedias, and biographical dictionaries.
MLA Literary Research Guide
The Literary Research Guide is a selective, annotated guide to reference sources essential to the study of British literature, literatures of the United States, other literatures in English, and related topics. The scope and organization of the content are described in the introduction. To begin working, use one of the tabs above.
Manchester Medieval Sources (Manchester University Press)
A selection of translated and annotated medieval sources published by Manchester University Press. Selected titles are available in print as well as online.
Nineteenth Century UK Periodicals (Gale)
Features digital access to a selection of 19th century British magazines on women, children, leisure and sport, humor, anthropology, travel, missionaries, and colonies.
North American Theatre Online (Alexander Street Press)
Presents a comprehensive reference work on North American theater, covering authors, plays, theaters, production companies, and major productions from Colonial times to the present. Includes the full text of major reference works; also contains images of playbills, posters, photographs, and other ephemera.
Orlando: Women's Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present (Cambridge)
Offers biographical and critical accounts of the lives and works of women writers from the British Isles across several centuries. Provides 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 were relevant to the historical context.
Past Masters (InteLex)
Contains selected full text of scholarly editions of many philosophers, theologians and literary writers: Anselm, Aquinas, Aristotle, Augustine, Austen, Chesterton, Descartes, Dewey, Feuerbach, Fichte, Foucault, Francis of Assisi, Hegel, Hobbes, Hume, Kant, Kierkegaard, Leibniz, Locke, Luther, Machiavelli, Marx and Engels, Merleau-Ponty, Montesquieu, Newman, Nietzsche, Ockham, Pascal, Peirce, Plato, Poinsot, Royce, Santayana, Schopenhauer, Shelley, Spinoza, Synge, Wittgenstein and Wollestonecraft, as well as collections for British Philosophy 1600-1900, The Continental Rationalists, The Latin Background: 1100-1550, and The Romantic Age.
Pennsylvania Gazette: 1728-1800 (Accessible Archives)
Full-text transcription and digitized image of the actual newspaper page as it originally appeared.
Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries
PACSCL includes major archival repositories and the libraries of some of the country's most prestigious universities, museums and learned societies.
Play Index (EBSCO)
Indexes plays written from Antiquity to the present that have been published individually or reprinted in collections and anthologies since 1949. Covers plays written in or translated into English, including one-act plays, pageants, plays in verse, radio and television plays, and classic drama. Search for plays by title, author, subject, style, genre, or cast type.
Readers' Guide Retrospective: 1890-1982 (EBSCO)
Provides indexing of over three million articles from more than 550 leading magazines, including full coverage of the original print volumes of Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature™. Subject coverage includes arts, business, computers, crafts, dance, drama, education, entertainment, fashion, film & television, food, gardening, health and medicine, home improvement, literature, news and current events, photography, popular and classical music, politics, popular culture, religion, sports and fitness, technology, transportation, travel and more.
Short Story Index (EBSCO)
Provides a practical way to locate full-text short stories of all genres online. Short story collections and anthologies are indexed and made searchable by author, title, subject, keyword, date, literary technique, and source, or any combination thereof. Coverage is retrospective back to 1984.
The Times Digital Archive 1785-2012 (Gale)
Provides a full-text, full-image, fully searchable facsimile of every page of the Times of London from its inception through about five years ago. The Times is the world's oldest daily newspaper in continuous publication.
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.
Wright American Fiction
This is a collection of 19th century American fiction, as listed in Lyle Wright's bibliography American Fiction, 1851-1875. There are currently 2,887 volumes included (1,763 unedited, 1,124 fully edited and encoded) by 1,456 authors.