Finding Primary Sources on the Open Web

There is no one way to find digitized primary sources on the Internet. The following offers methods for finding online historical resources which are more focused than a simple Google search. Most find items within digital collections. A few search the full text.

In most one cannot effectively limit to archival/manuscript sources.  Specific searches usually work better than broad topical searches.  Searches for proper names often yield good results.

The Digital Public Library of America

The Digital Public Library of America offers textual, visual, and sound resources contributed by numerous libraries, archives, and museums.  Searches catalog records, not full text.  Contains many individual items, such as letters and photographs, from digital collections. Searches for proper names often yield individual items (photographs, letters, etc.) within collections. Subject terms indicative of AM material can be added, e.g.: Naturalists and (diaries or correspondence or archives or manuscripts or “Personal narratives” or notebooks). Although helpful, this search will still yield much printed material.. 

The DPLA is a useful tool for exploring the relationship between various elements of the collections of a particular person or subject. For instance, besides a regular listing of results, it is also possible to view a timeline of the items and a map of the locations where these items originated. Various apps have also been developed for exploring the collections visually, including an interactive timeline that maps out what subject headings apply to the items.

Digital Libraries by State

These websites list hundreds of local, state, and regional resources. Each is different and some are better designed than others.  Very useful when your topic has a regional focus.

Advanced Google Searches

General Google searches may yield very many results, and it may take much sifting through the results in order to find relevant items. Using Google Advanced Search with specific search terms can help yield more focused results.

Within Google Advanced Search, use the “all of these words” and the “this exact word or phrase” to enter keywords for your subject, for example,

  • all these words: Botanists
  • any of these words: archives manuscripts correspondence diaries scrapbooks sources letters

This will yield a mixture of digitized full text and other material.

Also try:

  • all these words: Botanists
  • any of these words: "digital archives" "digital collection" "online collection"

.Also try:

  • all these words: [Your topic words]
  • any of these words: cdm contentdm

"Cdm" or "contentdm" occur in the url of many digital collections

For any of these searches, use the “site or domain” box to search within just .edu, .org, or .gov sites.

Other Libraries' Research Guides are often Useful

In Google Advanced Search

  • all these words: library [your topic keywords]
  • any of these words: guides research resources
  • site or domain: .edu  [or or country domain, etc.]

Bielefeld Academic Search Engine

Bielefeld Academic Search Engine (BASE) searches metadata and some full text, from over 2000 sources of academic open access documents.  About 60% of the documents indexed are available full text.  The metadata searched is provided by the source and tagging is often inexact.  This is a vast collection of documents and has much not available elsewhere.
Use Browsing to narrow your search to subject area (e.g., Literature) or Document type (e.g., Manuscript, broadly construed).  Open Browsing and choose-Dewey Decimal (for Subject), choose major subject to see next finer level, twice.  After choosing View Records add a search term to the Subject Term or Document Type:


EROMM: European Register of Microform and Digital Masters searches its own database of records of printed and handwritten material in digital form or on microfilm from institutions worldwide and offers web search for such material.


Europeana: Cultural collections of Europe is the largest European search engine for digitized books, images, manuscripts, etc. Searches catalogs records of material contributed by numerous repositories.  Not full text searchable; links to full text.  Similar to the Digital Library of America

Digitized Collections in WorldCat

WorldCat offers the most comprehensive search for digitized archival/manuscript material. However, analogous to microfilm, digitized AM collections usually are not tagged as AM. There are several methods, none of which is perfect, of isolating digitized manuscript material.

Use Advanced Search:

"slave insurrections"
Subject: archives or correspondence or diaries or scrapbooks or sources or manuscripts

Check Internet Resources at Limit type to: Open Options on the upper right, and choose Record List Size: 100, then search.

Most of the results are likely to be ebook versions of books containing primary sources rather than digitized AM.  The default results order is by number of holding libraries, so that ebooks held by numerous libraries will be toward the top of the list.  Therefore, jump down in the list until you get to resources held by only one or two libraries in order to avoid the ebook records.  Here you should find the records of digitized AM collections in the free Web mixed in with other results. Though clumsy, this method of sorting through the results is the most consistent way to get the relevant items. does not offer a sort by number of libraries but it can be searched with Simple Search or a Keyword field in Advanced Search with searches of the form:

"slave insurrections" AND (su:archives OR su:correspondence OR su:diaries OR su:scrapbooks OR su:sources OR su:manuscripts) AND mt:web

“slave insurrections” AND (ti:papers OR ti:records OR ti:letters OR ti:documents OR ti:collection) AND mt=web

The difficulties in searching WorldCat for AM material derive from digitized and microfilm collections not being searchably tagged as AM and from the numerous member libraries each having its own idea of how AM (original, microfilm, digitized) should be tagged. Records for books are much more consistent.

Lists and Guides for Digital Collections


Digital Library Directory is a searchable collection of links to digital collections.

Digital collections: Rechtshistorie

Internet Sites with Primary Sources for History

Endangered Archives Programme (British Library)

History (University of Washington)  The Primary Sources pages of the History guides list numerous primary source collections

Bodleian History Faculty Library Bookmarks

Guide to Online Primary Sources (UC San Diego)

The origins of the Cold War: Deciphering open access primary sources

Voice of the Shuttle: History

United States

AMDOCS: Documents for the Study of American History: Online documents arranged by year

Discovering American Women's History Online. Offers collection level search.

U.S. History: Primary Source Collections Online

Primary Sources for United States History

Primary Source Collections (U.S.) (Univ. of Okla)

“Gay Is Good”: Digital collections in LGBTQ U.S. History


European History Primary Sources is an index of scholarly websites providing access to primary sources. Offers collection level search.

EuroDocs: Online Sources for European History: Selected Transcriptions, Facsimiles and Translations. List of digitized documents by country

MICHAEL: Multilingual Inventory of Cultural Heritage in Europe searches digital collections at the collection rather than the item level from European museums, archives and libraries.  Contains material not in Base, Europeana or EROMM

Archives Hub: British digital collections

Online Resources (Institute of Historical Research)

Research guides: Online collections (UK National Archives)

Guide to German Studies: Digital Libraries & Collections (Univ. of North Carolina)

Digitale Sammlungen: Liste digitaler Sammlungen mit deutschsprachigen gemeinfreien Büchern

French and other European Digital Libraries and Online Catalogs

Patrimoine numérique. Catalogue des collections numérisées

Bibliothèque Francophone Numérique.  Scroll down for Découvrez les Collections par Zones Géographiques.

Digital Humanities Database. A searchable database of French and Francophone Studies digital projects.

Middle East

Middle East & Islamic Studies Collection Digital Collections

General Digital Libraries

General Digital Libraries

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 offers full text of, largely, pre-1924 books and periodicals, snippet views of, largely post-1924 books and periodicals digitized in libraries, and partial "previews" of books submitted by publishers.

HathiTrust Digital Library. Each full text item is linked to a standard library catalog record, thus providing good metadata and subject terms.  Thus a full text search of the whole database can be limited by title or Subject term.  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 full text search. Put your terms (phrases or personal names, in quotation marks (""), work best) in the search box and choose Text Contents.

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.

Internet History Sourcebooks Project

World Digital Library offers primary source materials.

The Making of the Modern World offers full text searching of works on economics and business published from 1450-1914 from the Kress Collection of Business and Economics at the Baker Library, Harvard Business School and the Goldsmiths' Library of Economic Literature at the University of London Library. Includes material on commerce, finance, social conditions, politics, public health, trade and transport. A great deal of more recently acquired material in the Kress Collection is not included in The Making of the Modern World.

Harvard's Subscribed Databases by Subject

To find databases available via Harvard Library by subject, go to HOLLIS Databases, scroll down to Best Databases for… and open History, or other topic.  Refine your results set on the right.  For example, for historical resources relating to women, go to Subject Category, open Show More, open Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies.  Also look for research guides on your subject among the Harvard Library research guides (Open Guides by Subject).

Digitized Harvard Collections

Digital Collections at Harvard. Digitized versions of Harvard University Library collections.

Harvard Law School Library Digital Collections