What is a primary source?

Primary sources come in a wide variety of formats, but they all have one thing in common: they are original, unfiltered sources that describe people, places and events. While museums, archives, and libraries preserve primary sources in their original form, reproductions may be widely available and accessible in a variety of formats including print books, digital archives, websites, and microfilm.

Using Primary Sources (Liverpool University Press)
Presents a combination of archival sources and essays on their interpretation. The collection covers major themes within the medieval, early modern, and modern periods. Subject experts contributed the essays with accompanying primary sources. This free and growing resource teaches students how to use primary sources. Individual essays and most sources can be downloaded as pdf files.

Primary Sources in the Library's Collection and Elsewhere

Use the Library's catalog and WorldCat to discover primary sources related to your topic. Scroll down for search tips. Contact your librarian for assistance.

A list of mostly digital archives of newspapers and magazines is available on a separate page.

Falvey Library Catalog
The Library's catalog enables patrons to search & browse Falvey Library’s collection of books, journals, audio/video materials, electronic resources and more.

WorldCat (FirstSearch)
Presents a combined catalog of the catalogs of more than 10,000 libraries worldwide. WorldCat highlights publications available at Villanova University. Other items can be requested via an inter-library loan request form.

Primary Sources

  AM Explorer (Adam Matthew Digital)

  American Decades: Primary Sources

  American History Collection (Rotunda - University of Virginia Press)

  American Journeys

  Digital Collections (The Library of Congress)

  American Notes: Travels in America, 1750-1920

  American State Papers: 1789-1838 (Readex)

  AncestryLibrary (ProQuest)

  Black Abolitionist Papers (ProQuest)

  Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writer's Project, 1936-1938

  Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation

  Chicago Anarchists on Trial: Evidence from the Haymarket Affair 1886-1887

  Core Documents of U.S. Democracy

  Doc Heritage (Pennsylvania State Archives)

  Documenting the American South

  Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans, 1639-1800 (Readex)

  Early American Imprints, Series II: Shaw-Shoemaker, 1801-1819 (Readex)

  Early English Books Online (ProQuest)  Tutorial

  Eighteenth Century Collections Online: Parts I&II (Gale)

  Eurodocs: Western European Primary Historical Documents

  FBI Case Files (Ancestry.com)

  First-Person Narratives of the American South, 1860-1920

  From Slavery to Freedom: The African-American Pamphlet Collection 1822-1909

  The Geography of Slavery in Virginia

  Gerritsen Collection of Aletta H. Jacobs (ProQuest)

  History and Politics Out Loud

  Historic Documents (SAGE)

  Historic Government Publications from World War II

  Immigration to the United States, 1789-1930

  Making of the Modern World, Part I, 1450-1850 (Gale)

  National Security Archive

  Readers' Guide Retrospective: 1890-1982 (EBSCO)

  Sabin Americana, 1500-1926 (Gale)

  Slaves and the Courts 1740-1860

  State Papers Online (Gale)

  U.K. Parliamentary Papers (ProQuest)

  U.S. Congressional Serial Set: 1817–1994 (Readex)

  Veterans History Project

  World History Archives

  World War I Document Archive

  19th Century Documents Project (Furman University)

Types of primary sources

This is a list of common types of primary sources. Use these descriptors as a starting point to query the catalog for primary sources related to your topic.

Diaries, journals and excerpts of diaries are not just found in archives and attics, but also published in books. The Library has diaries of famous people, diaries from classes of people such as women or soldiers and diaries from different geographic areas. With some luck you can also find English translations of diaries originally written in a different language.

subject search:  diaries AND "Louis Philippe"
subject search:  diaries AND women
subject search:  diaries AND Germany

Newspapers and magazines
The Library has access to a large number of newspapers either in digital of microform format. Check the catalog for newspapers of interest to your topic and verify whether the Library has access to the relevant time period or browse the list of selected digitally available newspaper titles and collections is available above. You may also be able to request a month or two of a newspaper on microfilm through interlibrary loan.

subject search:  Ireland AND newspapers

Letters are described in the Library of Congress subject thesaurus with the term "correspondence." Find letters published in books with the help of the online catalog. Include the names of the correspondents in your search query or search by social status and/or occupation.

subject search:  lawyers AND "united states" AND correspondence
subject search:  soldiers AND correspondence
subject search:  Gonne AND Maude AND correspondence

Please note that the Library of Congress subheading -autobiographies is used exclusively for theoretical works about autobiographies. An author search is generally the best way to find published autobiographies. Biographical dictionaries will also identify published autobiographies. Try words such as memoir as part of a keyword search and/or personal narratives as part of a subject search.

author search:  Frederick AND Douglass
keyword search:  memoirs AND politicians
subject search:  "personal narratives" AND Vietnam

Personal narratives
Personal narratives is a catch-all phrase for memoirs and diaries in the Library of Congress subject heading scheme.

subject search:  "personal narratives" AND Holocaust
subject search:  "personal narratives" AND prisoners

Transcripts of famous speeches.

subject search:  speeches AND Martin AND Luther AND King

Travel narratives
Many travel narratives have been penned with future publication in mind and are hence widely available. Travel narratives may also consist of excerpts from letters and diaries. Include the designated Library of Congress subheading for travel narratives, which is "description and travel" into your search query. Note the difference in the number of results when using "description and travel" versus "travel narratives":

subject search:  Russia AND "description and travel"
keyword search:  "travel narratives" AND russia

"Sources" is a commonly used Library of Congress subject heading to describe all kinds of primary sources.

subject search:  sources AND "cold war"
subject search:  sources AND suffrage

Research based on manuscripts can be time-consuming and expensive if the manuscripts in question are only available in distant archives. Today, an ever increasing number of manuscripts can be found online in digital form. Many libraries and archives have digitized their rare materials to make them more accessible. Examples include the Library of Congress, the National Archives and Villanova's own digital library. Manuscripts are sometimes also available as facsimile editions in ordinary library books. The catalog records of such published reprints of manuscripts often include the subject "early works to 1800." Below are some suggestions on how to find manuscripts in the catalog.

subject search: "manuscripts medieval"
subject search:  manuscripts AND spain
subject search:  "illumination of books and manuscripts"

Early works to 1800
A Library of Congress subject classification catch-all for books written prior to 1800. Note that the catalog record may show a much more recent publication date, since these books are generally only available as reprints outside of archives.

subject search:  Virginia AND "early works to 1800"
subject search:  reformation AND "early works to 1800"

Other subjects for primary sources in the Library of Congress subject thesaurus include interviews, suveys, maps, pamphlets and treaties.