Finding Primary Sources

This page lists a variety of kinds of sources and offers links to resources for exploring them. We start with two general resources: HOLLIS and HathiTrust.   Additional information in Outline of Primary Sources for History

Searching in HOLLIS

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 find the terms under Subject. For example, searching Los Angeles floods yields:

Hazardous metropolis: flooding and urban ecology in Los Angeles, by Jared Orsi. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004, xiii, 276 p.
Urban ecology (Sociology) -- California -- Los Angeles
Flood control -- California -- Los Angeles.
Flood control -- Government policy -- California -- Los Angeles.

Under Refine my results: Subject on the right of the results list there are more main terms (Water supply, Water use, Water resources development) to try, but not the terms after the dashes (Government policy) which are called subdivisions. If you hit one of the terms in this Subject list, HOLLIS will find records with the term, say Water supply, only on records in the set originally formed by searching Los Angeles floods.

Redo your search using the terms that HOLLIS uses. Also, go to Starts with.../Browse (top black band) and put in Water Pollution, adjusting to Browse by Subject. This is very useful in breaking down a large subject and in giving you more subdivisions, which can be applied to other Subject terms, to search. Thus:

Water -- Pollution -- Government policy

Whenever you have a reference to a useful book, look it up in HOLLIS and see what the Subject terms are.

Another example:

Land of sunshine: an environmental history of metropolitan Los Angeles, ed. by William Deverell and Greg Hise. Pittsburgh : University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005, 350 p. Subjects
Human ecology -- California -- Los Angeles Metropolitan Area -- History.
Urban ecology (Sociology) -- California -- Los Angeles Metropolitan Area -- History.
Landscape changes -- California -- Los Angeles Metropolitan Area -- History.
Environmental degradation -- California -- Los Angeles Metropolitan Area -- History.
Los Angeles Metropolitan Area (Calif.) -- History.
Los Angeles Metropolitan Area (Calif.) -- Environmental conditions.

Any pertinent book published during your era may be a primary source, but certain kinds of primary sources, including originally unpublished sources such as letters and diaries published later, have particular terms attached to their Subject terms in a HOLLIS record.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
  • --Correspondence
  • --Description and travel
  • --Diaries
  • --Manuscripts
  • --Notebooks, sketchbooks, etc.
  • --Personal narratives (refers to accounts of wars and diseases only)
  • --Sources (usually refers to collections of published primary sources)

When you find a pertinent book, go to Starts With.../Browse and put in the call number, adjusting the menu to Library of Congress (Wid-LC) or Other. This shows you other books on the same subject, even though they may be in storage or checked out.

You can do a HOLLIS search for material published in a particular country or US state.  Go to HOLLIS Advanced search, adjust menu to Code: MARC Place of pub and put, for example for Massachusetts, mau in the search box. Country code list. You can do the same thing in WorldCat Advanced Search. Put cp:massachusetts in the 'Search for:' field. Cp: is country/state of publication.

These searches can be limited by language, dates, format, etc. In the usual way

See the Library Research Guide for History and the HOLLIS Help guide for more information on searching HOLLIS.

For material not available at Harvard, search in: WorldCat (the OCLC Union Catalog) which includes catalog records from over 70,000 libraries worldwide but largely U.S. Includes books, periodicals, archives and manuscripts, maps, videotapes, computer readable files, etc. Includes Boston-area libraries.

Importance of WorldCat:

  • 1. Subject searching beyond Harvard. For periodicals: Advanced search. Document type-Serial Publications
  • 2. Clues for finding items in the HOLLIS Catalog, e.g., volumes in monograph series for which HOLLIS has only one record for the whole series.
  • 3. Finding non-Harvard books in Boston-area libraries.
  • 4. Verifying references for InterLibrary Loan. Give them the Accession no. at the bottom of the record (i.e., OCLC number) to speed up the request.

You can do a WorldCat search for material published in a particular country or US state.  In WorldCat Advanced Search. Put cp:massachusetts in the 'Search for:' Keyword field. Cp: is country/state of publication.  Country code list.

 Searching in HathiTrust & Other Digital Libraries and Collections

Hathitrust is a huge general digital library similar to, and partly overlapping in content with, Google Book Search and Internet Archive but with some special features.  In HathiTrust Full Text Advanced Search, you can do a full text search over the whole collection of millions of books and journals or over a subset defined by Title (useful for periodicals), Author, Subject, or Publisher.   You can search for a Subject keyword in, say, travel books (Subject term: "Description and travel") on a certain city for a specified time period.   Full text of post-1923 copyrighted material is not viewable.  If you limit your search to post-1923 material and to Full View, you will retrieve largely government documents (because they are not copyrighted).  Phrases, rather than combinations of separate words, work best.

Other Digital Libraries and Collections

There are many other digital libraries, some general - some specialized, which offer digitized primary sources.  

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.


Harvard has enormous collections of archives and manuscripts.  These include the unpublished records of organizations and of individuals (often called personal papers and including correspondence (letters), notes, diaries and other material). They may be original collections located at Harvard, online, microfilm or print copies of collections at other institutions.

There are about 40 special collections (archives, manuscript and rare book collections) at Harvard.  Houghton, the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, and the University Archives are stand-alone special collections. Many others exist within other libraries.

Once you have found your collection, be sure to take the time to talk in person to an archivist or librarian about your project.

Archive Finder. Archive Finder allows limitation to Massachusetts repositories or to individual repository. It has its own subject term system (different from HOLLIS), so note their terms and search accordingly.

ArchiveGrid includes many catalog records, but also many online inventories. Thus much more detailed searches are possible. One cannot limit geographically, but can limit by repository by including the repository name, in quotes, in the search.


Sometimes you can find a bibliography, a publication that lists other publications, on your subject. Search in HOLLIS with the word Bibliography as a Subject keyword search (Bibliography needs to be Subject keyword, NOT Keywords anywhere) "Water supply"  AND bibliography.  You can use Keywords anywhere for your other keywords in Advanced search.  Browsing a bibliography offers a different experience from database searching with keywords.

A scholar's guide to geographical writing on the American and Canadian past, by Michael P. Conzen, Thomas A. Rumney, Graeme Wynn. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1993, 741 p.


United States Census Data Resources (Research Guide)

The experts on the Census are in the Government Documents section in Lamont (

Diaries and Other Personal Writings

Writings in which people reflect or report on their own lives and experiences are called personal writings.  They are sometimes written for publication (autobiographies, memoirs) and sometimes for private use (diaries, letters, although diaries are sometimes written with an eye to publication) and published posthumously.  Personal narratives are usually accounts of wars or diseases.  See also Oral Histories

To find them in HOLLIS Advanced Search search Subject : "civil rights workers" AND (sources OR diaries OR narratives OR correspondence).

Autobiographies usually bear the Subject term Biography, and so are not distinguished from biographies. The search Autobiographies OR Autobiography yields many autobiographies, but by no means all.

Memoir is not an official subject term.  Search memoir as a Keyword anywhere or Keyword title search

To find them in  search: India AND disasters AND (diaries OR archives OR correspondence).


To find films about a place in HOLLIS,  go to Advanced search, adjust menu to Place, enter your place, then on the right side of the results screen, look at Resource Type and choose video/film. Example.

To find books about films about your topic, search Topic keywords AND Subject "in motion pictures". Example

​Film Platform offers numerous documentary films on a wide variety of subjects.  There are collections on several topics. Searches can be filtered by topic, country of production, and language. 

Kanopy offers more than 25,000 titles representing a broad range of subjects.


A gazetteer is an alphabetical place name list with information on former names, physical features, social statistics, population, etc., depending on the particular gazetteer. Often a very rich resource.

Numerous gazetteers in paper format can be found by searching "New York" Gazetteers in HOLLIS.

Geology/Natural History

Search in HOLLIS / WorldCat Advanced Search:

  • Geology AND Massachusetts
  • "Physical geography" AND Massachusetts
  • "Natural history" "New York"
  • Plants Massachusetts "Berkshire County"
  • "Plant communities" Massachusetts "Berkshire County"
  • Flora (as title) Massachusetts

Digitized field notes of naturalists: Smithsonian Field Books collection. Over 3100 field books

Government (US)

Government Documents

Technical reports

Government Documents: State and Local

You can do HOLLIS searches on a city as author.

For HOLLIS, use the “Browse HOLLIS By…” link on the basic search screen and browse Author: Chicago Ill.

LLMC Digital offers full text of legislative and judicial documents for many countries.  Open Online Services, then Browse Collections.

See also the State and Local Documents page of this guide.


Guidebooks published for tourists and other visitors can be rich sources of historical information. Find them in HOLLIS Advanced search with:

Subject: Chicago Guidebooks

The Negro Motorist Green Book, by Victor Hugo Green. New York: Victor Hugo Green, 1936-1966.
--Intended to guide traveling African Americans in the Jim Crow era.
Online Version


Records for many, but by no means all, individual Harvard University Library images are available in HOLLIS Images, an online catalog of images. Records include subjects and a thumbnail image.

Combining your topical words with the phrase "Pictorial Works" in HOLLIS yields books that are largely composed of pictures.


Gardner Collection of Photos of the New England Landscape

Images of America: a history of American life in images and texts is the online version of thousands of books in the Arcadia US local history series. The histories Includes photographs from archives, historical societies and private collections. Images and text are fully searchable. Searchable by location, person, event, date, ethic group and organization. Search HOLLIS+ HOLLIS tab Advanced search as Series (exact phrase) Images of America for the print books.

Metropolis: New York City Water and Transit Infrastructure in Photographs

American Environmental Photographs, 1891-1936  offers 4,500 photographs documenting natural environments, ecologies, and plant communities in the United States. Drawn from the records of the Department of Botany in the University of Chicago Archives.

American Landscape and Architectural Design, 1850-1920 is a collection of about 2,800 digitized lantern slide views of American buildings and landscapes. Includes views of cities, buildings, parks, estates, gardens, with some maps and plans, including works by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. Bremer Pond and James Sturgis Pray, et al. There is a special section on Harvard University buildings.

Forest History Society Photograph Database includes numerous USDA Forest Service photographs, 1880s-1970s.

Government Resources for Science Images (1910-1940)

National Geographic Photo Archive

Photogrammar offers 170,000 photographs from 1935 to 1945 created by the US Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information (FSA-OWI).



In HOLLIS Library Catalog, search, for example:

  • Painting, American -- Connecticut -- Litchfield Hills
  • Litchfield Hills (Conn.) -- In art -- Exhibitions.


Legal sources include the laws themselves, legislative histories of their passage, judges' opinions in appeals to higher courts (case law), periodical articles in law reviews, and other sources.  See Research Guide for History 97g: "What is Legal History? for sources


The Harvard Map Collection contains one of the world’s finest collections of maps. Although their atlases are in HOLLIS, many of their older, individual maps are not. To get there, enter Lamont, go down to Level B, walk down the corridor to the West end, turn right, and walk down the corridor past the Theodore Roosevelt exhibit.

To search for maps in HOLLIS, use advanced search and limit by Location to Map Coll (Pusey).

Online resources for maps:


See the News Sources page of this guide.

For information on how an event was covered by news sources, search the phrase "Press coverage" in HOLLIS or the historical indexes along with your keywords.

Oral Histories

Participants in historical movements and events are often interviewed and asked to report and reflect on their experiences.

To find oral histories in HOLLIS or WorldCat search: topical keyword (or Subject term) AND (interviews OR "oral histor*"); search (interviews OR "oral histor*") as Subject keyword.

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.

Periodical Articles

For the environmental and the general periodical literature, see the Periodical Articles page of this guide.

Policy Literature

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

Public Opinion

Roper Center for Public Opinion collects thousands of opinion polls. The iPoll search searches words in poll questions. The dataset search searches words in the summaries of polling studies. Both searches can be limited by date.

Travel Accounts

Find descriptions of countries by  travelers in HOLLIS by searching Advanced Search for the subject term “Description and Travel” AND the relevant geographical terms: "Boston" OR Massachusetts OR "New England" OR...

You can search for a keyword in travel books (Subject term: "Description and travel") on a certain city or state for a specified time period in Hathitrust Advanced Full Text Search by putting your keywords in the first search box and, in the second, as Title phrase, a specific book, or, as Subject, Boston "Description and travel".