Finding Primary Sources Online: Detailed Instructions

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" "digital library" "online collection" "primary sources"

Also try:

  • all these words: Botanists
  • any of these words: "oral history" OR "oral histories" OR interviews

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.​  List of country domain names.

WorldCat (the OCLC Union Catalog)

Numerous digitized collections of primary sources have records in WorldCat.  These collections of primary sources are often swamped by ebooks on the same subject. There is no one perfect method for finding them, but the following may be tried for any topic.  Always find the proper Subject terms for your topic and search using those as well as any keywords. 

Before you search:

  • Use Advanced search.
  • Remove punctuation (: . ; -) and diacritics (change  á to a) from your search terms.
  • Open Options in upper right. Change Record list size from 10 mto 100. Hit Set.

Search examples:

Search Keyword: CONTENTdm
Keyword: Your search term

Yields material from WorldCat's digital collections platform

Search: African American Women Authors
Material type phrase: Updating website

African American Women Writers of the 19th Century

You may also combine your search keyword with terms indicating primary sources (Archives, Correspondence, Diaries, Interviews, Manuscripts, Notebooks, sketchbooks, etc., Personal narratives, Sources), thus

Subject terms search: marriage history
Subject terms search:sources or archives or correspondence or diaries
Material type: not ebook
Limit type to: Internet Resources

Willie Harris collection 1950s-1970s consists of photographic prints documenting social customs, religious life, weddings, organizations, and other affairs of African American men, women, and children in Baton Rouge, La. between the 1950s and 1970s.

Search: women slavery
Material type phrase: Internet resource
Limit type to: Archival Material

Yields: Virginia Norfleet circa 1900. reminiscences

The latter two searches will yield a mix of digital collections and digitized archival finding aids.

Finding the Right Subscription Database

Because there are so many subscription databases, and because each database often includes numerous subcollections, it is difficult to know which databases may contain the sources you want.  For example, Vietnam War and American Foreign Policy, 1960-1975 (ProQuest History Vault) includes U.S. State Department Office of the Executive Secretariat Crisis Files. Part 1, the Berlin Crisis, 1957-1963

Subscription databases are largely produced by only a few publishers, and often are digitizations of previously existing microfilm collections.  The only general search method for these components of databases (including those not held by Harvard) is WorldCat. Numerous subcollections of primary source databases have records in WorldCat

Methods of searching WorldCat:

Always find the proper Subject terms for your topic and search using those as well as any keywords.  Use Advanced search.  Since you may be scrolling through numerous records to find the ones you want, open Options on the upper right and change Record list size from 10 to 100.  Limit type to: Internet Resources.

  • Searching Keywords: “Berlin Crisis” AND Subject: records or archives or sources yields: U.S. State Department Office of the Executive Secretariat Crisis Files. Part 1, the Berlin Crisis, 1957-1963 in the ProQuest History Vault, although the specific module, Vietnam and U S Foreign Policy, is not specified.
  • Searching Subject: 'United States Foreign relations Gabon' yields: Despatches from U.S. consuls in Gaboon, 1856-1888 in Nineteenth Century Collections Online (Gale Cengage).  
  • Searching Keywords: "Edward Sylvester Morse" AND Keywords: "Adam Matthew" or Proquest or Gale or "Alexander Street" yields: Meiji Japan : the Edward Sylvester Morse collection from the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum by Adam Matthew.

It is often easiest to find microfilm collections on your topic and then search for the title in WorldCat, limiting to Internet Resource. Tools for finding microfilm collections are:

Microform collections of the major microfilm publishers are listed in:

The Major Subscription Database Publishers

Adam Matthew offers a simultaneous full text search of all its databases.  The full text is not shown on their site, so you must look up your terms in the specified database through HOLLIS Databases.

Alexander Street. Open Menu at top. My Collections offers a list of all Harvard's Alexander Street Collections. Advanced Search offers a search over all Harvard's Alexander Street collections. The Alexander Street website offers a list of their collections.

Gale Cengage produces the numerous databases in Archives Unbound. Harvard has several but not all which can be searched simultaneously in Advanced Search. Archives Unbound collections are listed on their website under categories and in their catalog. Other major Gale Cengage collections include Nineteenth Century Collections Online which includes 272 subcollections in 11 major categories (called Archives)

Asia and the West  --  British Politics and Society  --  British Theatre, Music, and Literature  --  Children's Literature and Childhood  --  Europe and Africa, Colonialism and Culture  --  European Literature, the Corvey Collection, 1790-1840  --  Maps and Travel Literature  --  Photography  --  Religion, Reform, and Society  --  Science, Technology, and Medicine, Parts I & II  --  Women and Transnational Networks

ProQuest has numerous databases but most of their historical archival source collections are in their History Vault. Open History Vault to any collection and you can browse in What's in History Vault?. In Advanced Search, check all modules, and you can do a simultaneous search over all History Vault modules Harvard owns, or choose Browse.   On the ProQuest site: History Vault: Contents lists all the History Vault collections  Titles List offers a list of subcollections for each History Vault.