Table of Contents
Primary sources can be found numerous classes of historical record. This page lists a variety of such classes and offers links to resources for exploring them.
HOLLIS is Harvard's search engine for our physical and online collections. There are two different options for searching:
- Library Catalog searches books, journals, videos, images, government documents, manuscripts, digital resources, etc. It searches the full text of archival finding aids.
- Everything searches journal and newspaper articles and a vast range of other electronic resources, some of which Harvard does not possess, together with the Library Catalog.
Finding relevant subject terms
To find books, periodicals, manuscripts, videos, etc., on a topic in HOLLIS, put in likely keywords and choose Library Catalog.
Look at pertinent records and see what terms appear under the subject section.
Note the terms after the dashes (called sub-divisions) that sub-divide a topic. These can apply to multiple subject terms.
Look under Refine my results on the right of the results page. Under Subjects, you will see listed more Subject terms that occur in your original set.
Redo your search using the subject terms that HOLLIS uses.
Browse by subject terms
Enter any useful subject term you've found. Select subject as the browse option.
This browsing option breaks down a large subject into subtopics and gives you an idea of some of the types of resources available for a certain subject.
Search for primary sources
Use the terms below with keywords or subject terms to search for different types of primary sources. Search for these terms in HOLLIS as a subject.
Primary source sub-divisions:
- --Description and travel
- --Notebooks, sketchbooks, etc.
- --Personal narratives (refers to accounts of wars and diseases only)
- --Sources (usually refers to collections of published primary sources)
Collections of primary sources may be published in print, on microfilm or online. They may contain a mix of different materials (ex. letters, diaries, notebooks, interviews, etc.) or be all one type (ex. all letters).
Digital libraries are generally multi-topic collections of resources. Digital collections are usually topic-specific collections. They may contain books, archival material, images and/or other formats. We give instructions for finding them here. We have listed selected digital collections for a (limited) variety of historical subjects here.
Hathitrust is a huge general digital library similar to, and partly overlapping in content with, Google Books and Internet Archive but with some special features. You can do a full text search over the whole collection of millions of books and journals and then effectively refine the results Use Full Text Advanced Search. Thus, the word Sati (widow burning) is found 666 times in English-language works published in India from 1900-1909. You can search for a keyword in, say, travel books (Subject term: "Description and travel") on a certain country for a specified time period.
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.
Digital Public Library of America offers textual, visual, and sound resources contributed by numerous libraries, archives, and museums. Searches catalog records, not full text.
Digital Libraries by State: These websites list hundreds of local, state, and regional resources.
- State Digital Resources: Memory Projects, Online Encyclopedias, Historical & Cultural Materials Collections
- 250+ Killer Digital Libraries and Archives
- 71 Digital Portals to State History
See more digital libraries arranged by region in the Library Research Guide for History.
Google Advanced Search
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. Tips for searching Advanced Google Searches.
Find bibliographies in HOLLIS by searching your keywords plus the word Bibliography (which must be limited to subject in Advanced Search). For example, "Germany History 1918 1933" and bibliography.
Web of Science Citation Indexes (for historical articles1956- ) includes articles in all areas of science. You can use the Cited Reference Search in Web of Science to find secondary source articles that cite a specified secondary or primary source article or book. Very useful for updating old bibliographies. More information.
Resources for Interpreting Your Primary Sources
Use encyclopedias, dictionaries, and handbooks to get a general overview of a specific topic. Search HOLLIS Advanced Search for your topic and encyclopedias OR dictionaries as a subject.
World Biographical Information System includes online full text of thousands of biographical dictionaries accessible by name of biographee.
American National Biography is the standard American source for biographies of major figures. Can do searches of occupations and limit by date.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is the standard British source for biographies of major figures. Can do searches of occupations and limit by date: Advanced Search Options: People Search.
Additional sources in Finding Biographical Information.
America: History and Life (1955- ) includes books, book chapters, journal articles, and book reviews.
Historical Abstracts (1954- ) includes books, book chapters, journal articles (but not book reviews) for non-North American history, 1450-date.
Note that in both America History and Life and in Historical Abstracts, you can limit your search to historical period covered (lower left of search screen).
Classified, annotated bibliography of world literature, including book reviews, on all aspects of classical studies, not just philology. Covers 2nd millennium B.C. to 500-800 A.D. Abbreviations from L'Annee Philologique
Special Kinds of Primary Sources
Many more kinds of primary sources are listed with methods for their discovery on the Library Research Guide for History. Once you ave focused on a research question, you may wish to browse it.
WorldCat is an online catalog of materials (books, periodicals, films, recordings, manuscripts, etc.) from libraries and other repositories across the world, but with a heavy emphasis on North America. It is useful for finding analog and digital collections of archives and manuscripts. Tips for searching for digital collections in WorldCat.
Harvard has enormous collections of archives and manuscripts, which include the unpublished records of organizations and of individuals (often called "personal papers and including correspondence (letters), notes, diaries and other material).
- Guidance on finding archival collections at Harvard and elsewhere.
- Major archival repositories at Harvard
- Published archival material. See Primary Sources in HOLLIS, above.
Basic resource: Social and Cultural History: Letters and Diaries Online
Basic resource: Oral History Online indexes oral history collections, with links to interview-level bibliographic records and to full-text materials, audio files and visual files where these are available.
More online and print collections of personal writings are available on the Library Research Guide for History.
To find personal writings in HOLLIS search by the subject terms diaries OR archives OR correspondence.
To find autobiographies in HOLLIS, search by the subject term biography as well as autobiograph*.
- This exact word or phrase: Civil rights
- Any of these words: "oral history" "oral histories" interviews
To find films in HOLLIS, search your topic keywords, then under Resource Type, choose video/film.
To find books about films about your topic, search topic keywords AND "in motion pictures"
Other sources for film and video are listed in the Library Research Guide for History, which also has pages for television and radio.
ProQuest Congressional provides full-text access to 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.
Hathitrust includes numerous government documents. You can use a government department or agency name as author. Separate search for HathiTrust government documents.
Other sources for government documents are listed in the Library Research Guide for History.
To find images in HOLLIS, search on your topic keywords, then choose "images" under Resource Type.
Harvard also has an images-specific search tool, called HOLLIS Images.
ARTstor offers innumerable images from art but also from a variety of humanities and social science fields. Other. sources for images are listed in the Library Research Guide for History, including sources for advertisements.
Combining your topical words with the phrase "Pictorial Works" in HOLLIS yields books that are largely composed of pictures.
Periodical (magazine, journal, newspaper) articles offer valuable descriptions of events and conditions as well as contemporary opinion. We have an outline of the types of primary sources with instructions for finding them. We divide them into:
Basic resource: Periodicals Index Online indexes contents of thousands of journals in the humanities and social sciences, from their first issues to 1995. Limit search to a disciple in Advanced Search: Publication Subject.
Magazines, comprising general interest and opinion magazines like Time or The New Yorker.
Reader's Guide Retrospective (WilsonWeb) (1890-1982), online version of the Readers' guide to periodical literature, indexes many American popular periodicals.
Opinion Archives offers a full text, as well as author/title, search of full runs of the following opinion periodicals:
American Spectator (1972- ) - Commentary – (1945- ) Commonweal (1924) - Dissent (1954- ) - Harpers Magazine (1850- ) - Moment (1975- )- NACLA (1966- ) - Nation (1965- ) - National Review (1955- ) - New Leader (1924- ) - New Republic (1914- ) - New York Review (1963- ) - New Yorker (1925- ) - Orion Magazine (1982- ) - Progressive (1909- )- Washington Monthly (1969- ) - Weekly Standard (1995- ) Full text searchable.
A history of American magazines, by Frank Luther Mott. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1938-1968, 5 v.
--V. 1. 1741-1850 -- v. 2. 1850-1865 -- v. 3. 1865-1885 -- v. 4. 1885-1905 -- v. 5. Sketches of 21 magazines, 1905-1930, with a cumulative index to the five volumes.
More sources for magazines (popular periodicals) are listed on the in the General and Popular Indexes pages of Finding Articles in General and Popular Periodicals (North America and Western Europe), which also has a page on women's magazines.
Basic Resource: ProQuest Historical Newspapers (mostly 19th-20th century) include illustrations, editorials, and advertising. Search all ProQuest news sources using: Proquest News & Newspapers. Search across all newspapers, or select a custom group of titles to search across, rather than searching just one title.
Newspapers.com. World collection (early 1700s-early 2000s). Includes papers from US, Australia, Canada, England, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Panama and Wales. If you choose Browse at the top, you get a convenient breakdown of the available papers. If you hit Add more info in the search box, you can add place and date.
Social statistics and opinion polls can give a quantitative perspective on your topic.
- Historical Statistics of the United States (HSUS)
- International historical statistics, 1750-2010
- Roper Center for Public Opinion collects thousands of opinion polls.
Other sources for statistics and data are listed in the Library Research Guide for History.