Outline of Primary Sources for History

This page serves as an index to the Library Research Guide for History and other research guides.  It lists major general tool types and kinds of  primary sources, giving links to major resources, links to further information in the guide and to sample HOLLIS searches.

Four tactics for finding primary sources.  They are best used together.

  1. Find them cited in reference works and secondary sources. Valuable especially in that it gives you context.  But you are limited to what your author has found, and a slight difference in perspective from your own may lead to very different sources.  An essential starting point. See: Library Research Guide for History: Exploring Your Topic.
  2. Direct search in catalogs and databases, for example in HOLLIS, HathiTrust, Early English Books Online.
  3. Find them in bibliographies (and their equivalents for archives and manuscripts) which are lists of printed (or manuscript sources) sometimes annotated.  A less used but often very fruitful method.  They are often produced contemporary with the era of interest.  Example.  Using them is a two-step process: find your source in a bibliography, then look it up in HOLLIS; or ASK US.
  4. Research guides. Guides prepared by Harvard librarians and by librarians from other institutions

General  --  Kinds of Primary Sources

General Catalogs

For finding primary sources at Harvard and for finding copies of primary sources in other repositories. A database of catalog records. Not (generally) full text searchable).
 Library Catalog searches not only books but also archives/manuscripts (including a full text search of digitized finding aids (not all are digitized), films, images, and other material (Example).  Any pertinent item produced during your era may be a primary source, but certain kinds of primary sources, including originally unpublished sources such as letters and diaries published later, have particular terms attached to their Subject terms in a HOLLIS record.  Change Any field to Subject for cleanest results.   

  • --Archives
  • --Caricatures and cartoons (just search Caricatures)
  • --Correspondence
  • --Description and travel
  • --Diaries
  • --Interviews
  • --Manuscripts
  • --Notebooks, sketchbooks, etc.
  • --Oral history
  • --Personal narratives (refers to accounts of wars and diseases only)
  • --Pictorial works (Books consisting mostly of pictures)
  • --Sources (usually refers to collections of published primary sources)

Archives OR Correspondence OR Diaries OR Manuscripts OR Sources OR Narratives OR Interviews OR "Oral history" (as Subject)

More on HOLLIS in the HOLLIS page of this guide and in the HOLLIS User Guide.

For finding original and digitized primary sources outside of Harvard.  A database of catalog records with links to finding aids or full text where available.
WorldCat (the OCLC Union Catalog) includes catalog records from over 70,000 libraries worldwide but largely U.S.  Includes books, periodicals, archives and manuscripts, maps, images, videotapes, computer readable files, etc. More on searching WorldCat.  Techniques for using WorldCat to find various types of sources are included under Kinds of Primary Sources, below.

Digital Libraries/Collections. Often full text searchable

General full text searchable databases:

HathiTrust Digital Library is a huge collection of digitized books and periodicals. Each full text item is linked to a standard library catalog record, thus providing good metadata and subject terms. Most items pre-1925 will be full text viewable.  After 1925, a much smaller number will be full text viewable.  You can search within non-full text viewable works and obtain the pages numbers where your search terms occur.   Most US, and some state, government documents will be full text viewable. More information on searching HathiTrust.

Internet Archive offers full text for a variety of digitized print materials and archived web pages (Wayback Machine), as well as manuscripts (a few), digitized microfilm, films, audio files, TV News, and more.  Many recent books are full text viewable if you set up a free account. You can use a Google password. More information on using Internet Archive.

Google Books, which contains all sorts of books and periodicals.

There are many other less general digital libraries specialized by language and/or era (Early English Books Online) or geographically (Gallica, Digital Commonwealth).

More specialized digital collections:

There are numerous subject-specialized digital collections (example: Travelers in the Middle East). There is no one method for finding them. Try WorldCat, Research Guides, and Advanced Google Searches.

Harvard's Databases

Europeana: Cultural collections of Europe  (More information) and The Digital Public Library of America   (More information)

WorldCat includes records for many digital collections, but due to the lack of standardized tagging, they can be hard to isolate from the very numerous ebooks.

Methods for searching WorldCat for digital collections

Advanced Google Searches

Library Research Guide for History: Finding Primary Sources Online: Finding Primary Sources on the Open Web

Research guides: Next

Research Guides

Digital libraries and lists of digital collections are listed in Library Research Guide for History: Finding Primary Sources Online: Digital Libraries/Collections by Region or Language

Selected Harvard guides

Format: Library Research Guide for History: Outline of Primary Sources for History
Geographical: Library Research Guide for History: Other Subject Guides
Subject: Library Research Guide for History: Other Subject Guides 

Finding research guides at other institutions: Google Advanced Search

Document collections (Print and Microfilm)

Primary source documents are often gathered up and published as printed books or in microfilm (reels of 35 mm film viewed through a machine).  They may consist of books, archival material, oral histories, in fact most of the kinds listed below.  Vast resources exist in microfilm. 


Find lists of publications (primary and/or secondary) on your topic in HOLLISBibliography must be searched as a Subject. Bibliographies may be contemporary or retrospective.

If you find an older article or book in a bibliography, you can use the Cited Reference Search in Web of Science find more recent articles by seeing who has cited it.  If you have a bibliography of primary sources, then the Web of Science can be used both to find secondary sources that cite a specified primary source and the response in the 20th century periodical literature. See Searching the Citation Indexes (Web of Science).

Kinds of Primary Sources

Archives and Manuscripts comprise originally unpublished writings or records produced by an individual (personal papers) or an organization in their activities.  Organizations producing archives may be governments (national, state, local), NGOs, corporations, universities.  They may reside with their producing bodies or may have been added to an archival repository.  You typically have to go to the repository to use them.

BooksFind books (and other resources) in HOLLIS and WorldCat

Broadcasts. Much news is distributed via radio and TV.  Tools for finding broadcast newsradio and TV listed in this guide and in the Kennedy School's News & Media guide.

Contemporary language

Country, State, and Local Information.  Information about a particular country, state or city/town at a particular time is available via a variety of sources including:

Data  The Digital Scholarship Support Group offers faculty, students, and staff interested in incorporating digital methods into their teaching and research a single point of entry to the many resources available at Harvard. Beginner's Guide to Locating and Using Numeric Data.

Film/Video As well as entertainment films, there are documentary films and newsreels. Tools for finding films listed in this guideFor newsreels. The Library has a guide for streaming video.

Internet Archive  Put your search term in Any field. Adjust Mediatype is: to Audio

Digital Public Library of America (DPLA)    Search for your topic. Select Type: Sound on the left.

WorldCat Open Access  Advanced Search. Adjust Databases from WorldCat to OpenAccessContent. Open Options (upper right). Change Record list size from 10 to 100.

Keyword: [your search term(s)
Genre/Form: video OR audiovisual

WorldCat OAIster (Union catalog of digital resources)  Advanced Search. Adjust Databases: from WorldCat to OAIster.  Open Options (upper right). Change Record list size from 10 to 100.

Keyword: [your search term(s)
Keyword: ge=video

Government Documents  (National, State, Local) are publications produced for public distribution (unlike archival sources).  We give instructions on finding them in this guide United StatesUS foreign relationsUS state and local, and foreign government documents

  • Many US government publications are available full text in HathiTrust. In Advanced Catalog search put Author: "United States" and a department/agency name if desired.
  • Bibliographies of government documents for your time period are often useful guides.  HOLLIS Library Catalog (Note Subject term: Government publications.

Gray Literature refers to reports produced and published by governmental or non-governmental agencies (think tanks, research institutes) but not published via the usual commercial or academic channels.  Think tank publications often offer the views of particular ideological groups. They may be studies of policy (often called working papers) or technical studies (called technical reports)

ImagesHarvard has numerous collections of images which are best searched via HOLLIS Images.  Countless images have been digitized.  Tools for finding them listed in this guide.

Law:  Legal sources include:

The Law School librarians are the experts (Law School Library guides), be we have a legal history guide to get started.  It covers the legal periodical literature (Law reviews), court cases, and legislation for the United States and, to a lesser extent Britain.

Literary Works

In HOLLIS the following terms are found on literary works and works of literary scholarship.

  • American literature -- Korean American authors.
  • Authors, Korean
  • Korean American literature -- United States.
  • Korean Americans – Fiction (or Drama, or Poetry) refers to literary works
  • Korean Americans -- In literature refers to literary scholarship
  • Korean Americans -- Literary Collections

Sources for literary scholarship are listed in the research guide: Literary Research in Harvard Libraries.

MapsThe Harvard Map Collection contains one of the world’s finest collections of maps. Although their atlases are in HOLLIS, many of their individual maps are not, so a visit is useful. As well as political and topographic maps, they have numerous thematic maps of demographic, social, and economic other features. More information in this guide.

Material Much historical evidence resides in material objects.  Find what Harvard has with a form/genre search in HOLLIS (HOLLIS Library Catalog Example - note that we exclude Visual in the search). We have a draft (unfinished) guide to American material culture which includes landscaps, gardens, cities, consumer goods, etc. Links to Harvard museums.

News Sources Important for giving a sense of events and opinion at a particular time and place. Abundantly digitized pre-1923 and post 1980s. 


Pamphlets are useful primary sources in that they are often responses to a particular event or situation.

Collections and series of pamphlets often have the word Pamphlets in the title. Narrow with additional keywords, e.g., “Middle East

Individual pamphlets often, by no means always, have the term Pamphlets in the Form/genre or Subject fields in Hollis and WorldCat - both searched together in the Advanced Search Subject search.

Sometimes series-level groups in archival collections are composed of pamphlets.  In Hollis for Archival Discovery searching Pamphlets isolates these series. This search can be focused with topic keywords or by repository.

Find bibliographies of pamphlets in HOLLIS Library Catalog Advanced Search: Subject contains: pamphlets bibliography

A catalogue of pamphlets on economic subjects published between 1750 and 1900 and now housed in Irish libraries, by R. D. Collison Black. Belfast, Queen's University Belfast, 1969, 632 p.

An incomplete list of major pamphlet collections is available here.

Periodicals come in the following types:

Tools are available for finding the circulation figures, audiences and political orientations of many newspapers and other periodicals, and the histories and characteristics of magazines.

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.

Public Opinion. Surveys are available that gauge public opinion on numerous topics.  Instructions for finding them in this guide. Sample HOLLIS Library Catalog search. For the opinion of a particular group of people use the Subject term: Attitudes - Sample HOLLIS Library Catalog search.

Sound Recordings

Internet Archive  Put your search term in Any field. Adjust Mediatype is: to Audio

Digital Public Library of America (DPLA)    Search for your topic. Select Type: Sound on the left.

WorldCat Open Access  Advanced Search. Adjust Databases from WorldCat to OpenAccessContent. Open Options (upper right). Change Record list size from 10 to 100.

Keyword: [your search term(s)
Genre/Form: recording OR sound OR audio

WorldCat OAIster (Union catalog of digital resources)  Advanced Search. Adjust Databases: from WorldCat to OAIster.  Open Options (upper right). Change Record list size from 10 to 100.

Keyword: [your search term(s)
Subject: recording OR sound OR audio

Categories of sound recordings.

Sample search in HOLLIS

Sound recordings are often available, physically or online, only via local repositories. To find these, search in WorldCat Advanced Search. For Limit type to: choose Sound Recordings. If there are too many musical recordings, enter mt:nsr (code for non musical recordings) in a Keyword field, add NOT audiobooks. Thus,

Keyword: Poliomyelitis
Keyword: mt:nsr
Keyword: Audiobooks

Document type Sound Recordings can be further refined by placing, for example, Speeches in a Subject field.  For a list of these genre/form terms.

Statistics Most countries publish series of demographic, economic and other statistics.  Statistics are also gathered by non-governmental agencies, including international organizations.  Tools for finding them.   Sample HOLLIS Library Catalog search

Textbooks   Tools for finding them.