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)
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.
The Library's catalog enables patrons to search & browse Falvey Library’s collection of books, journals, audio/video materials, electronic resources and more.
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.
American Decades: Primary Sources
American History Collection (Rotunda - University of Virginia Press)
Digital Collections (The Library of Congress)
American Notes: Travels in America, 1750-1920
American State Papers: 1789-1838 (Readex)
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Eurodocs: Western European Primary Historical Documents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)
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
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 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
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.
Provides access to a range of databases with biographical information. Includes census data, vital records, directories, voter lists, immigration records, images, and more.
Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970
A compendium of statistics from over 1000 sources last updated in 1975 and has been expanded to include over 37,000 data series. Topics ranging from migration and health to crime and the Confederate States of America are each placed in historical context by a recognized expert in the field. The fully searchable and downloadable edition will permit users to graph individual tables and create customized tables and spreadsheets reflecting their own areas of interest.
Statistical Abstract of the United States
Site provides access to current 2012 PDF and past editions. Includes everything from government spending to the environment to communications. It is a most comprehensive one-volume reference source on the Nation's economic and social condition.