Knowing a primary source when you see one

Primary sources provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation. They are created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented.

Often these sources are created at the time when the events or conditions are occurring, but primary sources can also include autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories recorded later.

Primary sources are characterized by their content, regardless of the format available. (Handwritten notes could be published; the published book might be digitized or put on microfilm, but those notes are still primary sources in any format).

Some types of primary sources:

  • Original documents (excerpts or translations acceptable): Diaries, speeches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, news film footage, contemporary newspaper articles, autobiographies, official records, pamphlets, meeting notes, photographs, contemporary sketches
  • Creative works: Poetry, drama, novels, music, art 
  • Relics or artifacts: Furniture, clothing, buildings

Examples of primary sources include:

Kinds of Primary Sources

Outline of Primary Sources for History

Archives and Manuscripts

Archives and manuscripts are the unpublished records of persons (letters, notes, diaries, etc.) and organizations. What are Archives?   Usually each archival collection has a (short) catalog record and a detailed finding aid (which is often available online).

  • "Catalog record” refers to the kind of record found in library online catalogs, similar to those for books, although often a bit longer. Example of an Archive record.
  • “Finding aid” (sometimes called an inventory) generally refers to a list of the folder labels for the collection, accompanied by a brief collection overview (scope and contents note) and a biographical (or institutional) note on the creator of the collection.  Finding aids may be as long as needed given the size of the collection.  They vary considerably according to the practices of individual repositories. Example of a Finding aid.

To find Archives and manuscripts at Harvard, go to HOLLIS Advanced search.  Search your keywords or Subject terms (see the HOLLIS page of this guide) in the Library Catalog, limiting to Resource Type: Archives/Manuscripts.  You can choose the library at the right (Search Scope).  Countway  Medicine has abundant medical archives, and Schlesinger has many archives of women activists, many in health and reproductive rights fields.   Sample search on Subject: Women health.

Library Research Guide for Finding Manuscripts and Archival Collections explains

For digitized archival material together with other kinds of primary sources:


Methods for finding books are described under the HOLLIS page of this guide and in the Finding Primary Sources in HOLLIS box on this page. 

  • Book Reviews may give an indication as to how a scientific work was received. See: Finding Book Reviews
  • Numerous, especially pre-1923 books (as well as periodicals and other sources) can be found and full text searched in several digital libraries (see box on this page).


Scientific articles:

Web of Science Citation Indexes (Harvard Login) (1900- ) articles in all areas of science. Includes medical articles not in PubMed. You can use the Cited Reference search in the Web of Science to find primary source articles that cite a specified article, thus getting an idea of its reception. More information on the Web of Science.

PubMed (1946- ) covers, usually with abstracts, periodical articles on all areas of medicine. -
--Be sure to look at the MeSH (Medical Subject Headings)  at the bottom of pertinent records. Very recent articles may not as yet received their MeSH terms.  So look at older records to find the MeSH terms, and use a variety of keywords as well as MeSH terms to find the new records.
--​The MeSH terms are the same as the Medical Subject terms found in HOLLIS.
--Hit Free article or Try Harvard Library, not the publisher's name to see full text

JSTOR (Harvard Login) offers full-text of complete runs (up to about 5 years ago) of over 400 journals. JSTOR allows simultaneous or individual searching, full-text searching optional, numerous journals in a variety of fields of science and medicine. See the list at the bottom of the Advanced search screen. JSTOR searches the "Notes and News" sections of journals (Science is especially rich in this material). In Advanced Search choose Item Type: Miscellaneous to limit largely to "Notes and News".

PsycINFO) (Harvard Login) (1872- ) indexes the professional and academic literature in psychology and related disciplines

Many more scientific periodical indexes are listed in the Library Research Guide for the History of Science.

General interest magazines and periodicals see:

American Periodicals Series Online (Harvard Login) (1740-1900) offers full text of about 1100 American periodicals. Includes several scientific and medical journals including the American Journal of Science and the Medical Repository. In cases where a periodical started before 1900, coverage is included until 1940.

British Periodicals (Harvard Login) (1681-1920) offers full text for several hundred British periodicals.

Ethnic NewsWatch (Harvard Login) (1959- ) is a full text database of the newspapers, magazines, and journals of the ethnic, minority and native press.

Periodicals Index Online (Harvard Login) indexes contents of thousands of US and European journals in the humanities and social sciences, from their first issues to 1995.

Reader's Guide Retrospective (WilsonWeb) (Harvard Login) (1890-1982)  indexes many American popular periodicals.

Many more general periodical indexes are listed in Finding Articles in General and Popular Periodicals (North America and Western Europe).

Articles in non-science fields (religion, public policy): see the list in the Library Research Guide for History.

Professional/Trade: Aimed at particular trades or professions.  See the Library Research Guide for History

Newspaper articles: see the Guide to Newspapers and Newspaper Indexes.

Personal accounts. These are first person narratives recalling or describing a person’s life and opinions. These include Diaries, memoirs, autobiographies, and when delivered orally and recorded: Oral histories and Interviews.

National Library of Medicine Oral Histories

Regulatory Oral History Hub (Kenan Institute for Ethics, Duke University) offers links to digital collections containing interviews with regulators, lawyers, and judges. Mainly U.S.

Visual sources:

Records for many, but by no means all, individual Harvard University Library images are available in HOLLIS Images, an online catalog of images. Records include subjects and a thumbnail image.  HOLLIS Images is included in HOLLIS searches.

Science & Society Picture Library offers over 50,000 images from the Science Museum (London), the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television and the National Railway Museum.

Database of Scientific Illustrators (DSI) includes over 12500 illustrators in natural history, medicine, technology and various sciences worldwide, c.1450-1950. Living illustrators excluded. 

NYPL Digital Gallery Pictures of Science: 700 Years of Scientific and Medical Illustration

Images from the History of Medicine (IHM) includes prints and photographs from the U.S. National Library of Medicine. (The IHM is contained within a larger NLM image database, so this link goes to a specialized search).

Images From the History of the Public Health Service: a Photographic Exhibit.

Wellcome Images


To find films in HOLLIS, search your topic keywords, then on the right side of the results screen, look at Resource Type and choose video/film.

To find books about films about your topic, search your topic keywords AND "in motion pictures" (in "")

​Film Platform offers numerous documentary films on a wide variety of subjects.  There are collections on several topics. Searches can be filtered by topic, country of production, and language. 

A list of general sources for images and film is available in the Library Research Guide for History and additional sources for the history of science in Library Research Guide for the History of Science.

Government documents often concern matters of science and health policy.  For Congressional documents, especially committee reports, see ProQuest Congressional (Harvard Login). 

HathiTrust Digital Library. Each full text item is linked to a standard library catalog record, thus providing good metadata and subject terms. The catalog can be searched separately.  Many government documents are full text viewable.  Search US government department as Author.

More sources are listed in the Library Research Guide for History

For artifacts and other objects, the Historic Scientific Instruments Collection in the Science Center includes over 15,000 instruments, often with contemporary documentation, from 1450 through the 20th century worldwide.

Waywiser, online database of the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments.

Warren Anatomical Museum of the Center for the History of Medicine in the Countway Library of Medicine has a rich collection of medical artifacts and specimens.

Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology

Fall 2020: these collections are closed during the pandemic. Check out their links above to see what they have available online.

Find Primary Sources in HOLLIS

Primary Source Terms:

You can limit HOLLIS searches to your time period, but sources may be published later, such as a person's diary published posthumously. Find these with these special Subject terms.

You can use the following terms to search HOLLIS for primary sources:

  • Archives
  • Correspondence
  • Description and travel
  • Diaries
  • Interviews
  • Manuscripts
  • Notebooks, sketchbooks, etc.
  • Personal narratives (refers to accounts of wars and diseases only)
  • Pictorial works
  • Sources (usually refers to collections of published primary sources)

Include these terms with your topical words in HOLLIS searches. For example: tuberculosis personal narratives

Using Digital Libraries and Collections Online

Online Primary Source Collections for the History of Science lists digital collections at Harvard and beyond by topic

Google Book Search, HathiTrust Digital Library and Internet Archives offer books and periodicals digitized from numerous libraries.  Only out-of-copyright, generally post-1923, books are fully viewable.  Each of these three digital libraries allows searching full text over their entire collections.

Google Book Search

HathiTrust Digital Library. Each full text item is linked to a standard library catalog record, thus providing good metadata and subject terms. The catalog can be searched separately.  Many post-1923 out-of-copyright books, especially government documents, are full text viewable. You can search within copyright books to see what page your search term is on.

Internet Archive now offers a beta full text search. Put your terms (phrases or personal names, in quotation marks (""), work best) in the search box. 

The Online Books Page arranges electronic texts by Library of Congress call numbers and is searchable (but not full text searchable).  Includes books not in Google Books, HathiTrust, or Internet Archive. Has many other useful features.

Medical Heritage Library. Information about the Medical Heritage Library. Now searchable full text.

UK Medical Heritage Library

Biodiversity Heritage Library

Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics (1493-1922) provides digitized historical, manuscript, and image resources selected from Harvard University libraries and archives.

Expeditions and Discoveries (1626-1953) features nine expeditions in anthropology and archaeology, astronomy, botany, and oceanography in which Harvard University played a significant role. Includes manuscripts and records, published materials, visual works, and maps from 14 Harvard repositories.

Defining Gender Online: Five Centuries of Advice Literature for Men and Women (1450-1910).

Twentieth Century Advice Literature: North American Guides on Race, Sex, Gender, and the Family.

Many more general History digital libraries and collections: Library Research Guide for History

More History of Science digital libraries: Library Research Guide for the History of Science.

Using Bibliographies

There may already be a detailed list of sources (a bibliography) for your topic.

For instance:

A bibliography of eugenics, by Samuel J. Holmes ... Berkeley, Calif., University of California press, 1924, 514 p. (University of California publications in zoology. vol. XXV)  Full text online.

Look for specialized subject bibliographies in HOLLIS Catalog. Example.  WorldCat can do similar searches in the Subject Keyword field for non-Harvard holdings.