Outline of Primary Sources

This page lists major general tool types and kinds of  primary sources, giving links to major resources, links to further information in several research guides and to sample HOLLIS searches.

Three tactics for finding primary sources.  They are best used 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 (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item produced during your era may be a primary source, but certain kinds of primary sources, including originally unpublished sources such as letters and diaries published later, have particular terms attached to their Subject terms in a HOLLIS record.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)

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.

HathiTrust Digital Library includes a searchable database of digitized books and periodicals contributed by numerous libraries. Includes items contributed by these libraries to Google Books and to Internet Archive but with some unique material. Each full text item is linked to a standard library catalog record, thus providing good metadata. The catalog can be searched separately. Globally full text searchable, like Google Books but unlike Internet Archive. Full text is fully viewable.

Document collections.  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.

Since Sources is a common word, 'Limit to: Subject' eliminates many irrelevant results.

Asian Americans and Seattle's Civil Rights History  offers oral histories, photographs, maps, documents.

Calisphere offers primary sources from California repositories.

Digital History of Asian-American History (University of Houston).


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

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.

Immigration Restriction League (U.S.) records, 1893-1921. FindIt@Harvard

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

Broadcast. Much news is distributed via radio and TV.  Tools for finding broadcast newsradio and TV listed in the Library Research Guide for History and in the Kennedy School's News & Media guide.

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

Government Documents  (National, State, Local) are publications produced for public distribution (unlike archival sources).  We give instructions on finding them in the Library Research Guide for History 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.

The great majority of U.S. and foreign government documents and the publications of international organizations are housed in the Government Documents/Microforms Collection of Lamont. Reference expertise is also available there.  Many government documents are not represented in the HOLLIS Catalog.

United States Commission on Civil Rights : reports on Asian Pacific Americans, ed. by Gabriel J. Chin. Buffalo, N.Y. : W.S. Hein, 2005. 4 v.
Subject:Asian Americans -- Civil rights -- History -- 20th century -- Sources.;
Pacific Islander Americans -- Civil rights -- History -- 20th century -- Sources.
Table of contents
Reports online
--Collected Asian American reports, 1975-2001

Homeland Security Digital Library provides access to U.S. policy documents, presidential directives, and national strategy documents as well as specialized resources, such as dissertations, reports and position papers from universities, research institutions, think tanks and U.S. local and state agencies as well as international governments. HSDL features SeekOnce, a meta-search engine, which enables cross searching of more than 50 journal article databases and a wide range of web-based resources from NASA to the RAND Corporation. Coverage: 2002 to current. However, HSDL is also collecting historical material relevant to homeland security from before 2002. Examples of historical documents in the collection include major legislation, executive orders, and presidential directives.

Government Studies on Immigration (2002- ). A bibliography.


This is a very useful source, containing the reports of Congressional committees and hearings:
ProQuest Congressional provides indexing for Congressional publications dating from 1790 to the present. Post-1970, full-text access is often available. Publications included are Committee Hearings, House and Senate Documents, House and Senate Reports, Senate Executive Reports, Senate Executive Treaty Documents, Legislative Histories, Serial Set Maps, Serial Set. More information.

HeinOnline U.S. Congressional Documents provides full-text access to the published debates, proceedings and speeches of the U.S. Congress, including the Annals of Congress(1789-1824), Register of Debates (1824-1837), Congressional Globe (1833-1873) and the Congressional Record (1873 to present).


National security and the FBI surveillance of enemy aliens. 32 microfilm reels.
Online guide

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)

PolicyFile (1990-) offers public policy reports and studies published by think tanks, university research programs, research organizations including the OECD, IMF, World Bank, the Rand Corporation, and a number of federal agencies.

Policy Archive is a digital library of public policy research containing over 30,000 documents.

Think Tank Search - from the Kennedy School of Government, a customized Google search of documents produced by think tanks.

Google advanced search. You can limit by domain: .org

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 the Library Research Guide for History.

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 cultureLinks to Harvard museums.

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.

National Online Directory of Ethnic Media of New America Media, and organization of ethnic news organizations.

Chronicling America, enhancing access to historic American newspapers (1836-1922) (Library of Congress) offers searchable full text. Also includes the valuable U.S. Newspaper Directory, 1690-Present, in which searches can be limited by language and ethnicity.

Ethnic American Newspapers from the Balch Collection (1799-1971) in America’s Historical NewspapersTitle list (In Quick Facts & Overview box on the right). The titles marked Forthcoming are in fact available now. Asian newspapers are largely Japanese.

Ethnic NewsWatch (1959- ) offers full-text of 90 newspapers and other periodicals (1990- ) and of 30 African American, Hispanic American, and Native American newspapers and other periodicals (1959-1989). Includes book/film/television reviews. Lists of periodicals by ethnicity.

Hispanic American newspapers, 1808-1980.

Nikkei Newspapers Digital Archive offers North American Times (1902-1942) and North American Post (1946-1950), published primarily in Japanese, with occasional, and then regularly appearing, pages published in English. Translation summaries (English) are provided for some front page stories.

Finding Articles in General and Popular Periodicals (North America and Western Europe)
Finding Periodical Articles and Book Reviews on Africa
Finding Periodical Articles and Book Reviews on South and Southeast Asia
Research Guide for East Asian Studies
Finding Periodical Articles and Book Reviews on Latin America
Slavic and Eurasian Studies: A Research Guide
Introduction to Slavic Information Resources (Univ. of Illinois)

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.


Subject contains: Illegal aliens
Subject contains: Interviews OR oral

North American Immigrant Letters, Diaries and Oral Histories (1800-1950.) includes 342 authors.

Archive of Immigrant Voices  (Center for Global Migration, University of Maryland)

Many Paths, Many Voices: Oral Histories from the University of Washington Special Collections (1960s- ) offers interviews from Scandinavian American, African American, Japanese American, and Jewish communities in Washington.

Autobiographies by Americans of color 1980-1994: an annotated bibliography, by Rebecca Stuhr-Rommereim. Troy, NY: Whitston, 1997.
LOCATION: Widener: WID-LC CT220.Z99 S78 1997x
--Lists 499 autobiographies of persons of African, Asian, Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Native American heritage with brief summaries. Reprints of pre1980 works are included but usually not annotated. Index includes countries of origin, topics, occupations and names, but not titles.
--Continued by Autobiographies by Americans of color, 1995-2000: an annotated bibliography, by Deborah Stuhr Iwabuchi & Rebecca Stuhr. Albany, NY: Whitston Pub. Co., 2003.
LOCATION: Widener Harvard Depository CT220.Z99
--Lists 674 autobiographies including items missed in the earlier volume. Includes some persons of Middle Eastern heritage.

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.

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 the Library Research Guide for History.   Sample HOLLIS Library Catalog search

Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-Born Population of the United States: 1850 to 2000

Statistical Yearbook of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1978-2001
Online Version

Yearbook of Immigration Statistics (Department of Homeland Security), 1996-present.

Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigrants and Immigration in the United States (Migration Policy Institute)

Migration Data Hub (Migration Policy Institute)