Library Tips: Finding Historical Primary Sources

Posted by Carolyn Caffrey Gardner, Elsie Doolan, and Michaela Ullmann

Primary sources provide direct experience of an event, person, or object. What is considered primary depends on the research question at hand. For example, in history primary sources often include diaries, letters, and historical documents written in the time period studied and by the people who experienced events first-hand. In social sciences primary sources can include interviews, fieldwork, surveys, and statistical data. The same item can be considered a primary source or a secondary source depending on the research question being explored.

Try looking in a specific collection for primary sources instead of searching the entire USC Libraries website. Collections may focus on a particular date range, subject area, or region. The collections highlighted below can be a great place to start when looking for primary sources in U.S. history.

  • The USC Libraries' archives and special collections contain many primary sources ranging from artifacts to personal letters and manuscripts. Try starting with special collections materials on Los Angeles and Regional history or searching the collections by keyword from the Libraries' website as seen below. If you would like to take a closer look at any of these materials, you will have to consult them in the reading room; you cannot check them out like other library resources. Our guide for first-time visitors can help you get started with the process for requesting materials.

     

  • The USC Digital Library contains a host of materials that you can access electronically. The photos below represent some of the rich visual primary source information within the Digital Library.

Anti-violence protesters from the Pasadena Coalition, 1966.

The USC Libraries also provide access to a wealth of databases and other resources for finding primary sources. Some highlights include:

When searching, use date ranges and advanced search options to refine your search. If you know the source type you're interested in, add keywords like diary, letter, etc. to track those down. For additional tips and resources on finding historical primary sources, see this library research guide.

Have questions? As always, feel free to ask a librarian. For more tips check out our post archives.