Outline of Primary Sources

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.

Three tactics for finding primary sources.  They are best used in together.

  1. Find them cited in 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.
  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.

General Tools

HOLLIS Library Catalog searches not only books but also archives/manuscripts (including a full text search of digitized finding aids (nat l=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item produced during your era may be a primary source, but certain kinds of primary sources, including originally unpublished sources such as letters and diaries published later, have particular terms attached to their Subject terms in a HOLLIS record.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)

Digital Libraries/Collections may be very general like the full text searchable HathiTrust, Internet Archive, Google Books, which contain all sorts of books and periodicals (Internet Archive also with audio and visual material) and the national catalog: Digital Public Library of America.  For local topics, the lists of digital libraries by US state are valuable.

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) rather than digitally.  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.

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

Books.  Find books (and other resources) in HOLLIS and WorldCat

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.

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.

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 relations, US 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.

Historical 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 listed in this guide.   Sample HOLLIS Library Catalog search

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.

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.

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)

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:

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.

Images.  Harvard 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.

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

Broadcast. Much news is distributed via radio and TV.  Tools for finding broadcast news, radio and TV listed 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 cultureLinks to Harvard museums.