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HIST495 Introduction to Historical Interpretation (History Honors)

Guide for history honors students.

Portals to Primary Sources


Left: Photo by Joanna Kosinska from                               Right: Letter written by Esther & Eva Hart from Titanic, Wikimedia Commons

What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are original materials that provide direct evidence or first-hand testimony concerning a topic or event -- firsthand records created by people who actually participated in or remembered an event and reported on the event and their reactions to it.

  • Primary sources can be contemporary sources created at the time when the event occurred (e.g., letters and newspaper articles) or later (such as, memoirs and oral history interviews).
  • Primary sources may be published or unpublished. Unpublished sources include unique materials (e.g., family papers) often referred to as archives and manuscripts.
  • What constitutes a primary source varies by discipline -- see Primary Sources by Discipline below. How the researcher uses the source generally determines whether it is a primary source or not.

*This material is used with permission from the University of Pittsburgh Library's research guide on Primary Sources

Don't know where to start? Try one of the following database portals. They allow researchers to search  across multiple databases produced by the same publisher.

Using The Library of Congress Subject Headings to Find Primary Sources

"Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) has been actively maintained since 1898 to catalog materials held at the Library of Congress. By virtue of cooperative cataloging other libraries around the United States also use LCSH to provide subject access to their collections. In addition LCSH is used internationally, often in translation." -

These are incredibly helpful for locating relevant sources for your research. Please consult the table form MIT to learn the basics of LOC subject headings.

Finding Primary Sources via discoverE

Use Library Search to find published primary sources in Emory's libraries, including:

  •  Published books that contain primary source documents
  •  Manuscript and archival collections and rare books held by the Manuscript, Archives & Rare Book Library 
  •  U.S. government documents
  •  Primary source collections in microfilm or microfiche format (see more about microforms in the box below)
Look for works by individuals, associations, or other groups directly involved with the topic you are researching by searching for their names as AUTHORS. 

Try adding one or more of the following search terms to your search:




personal narratives



captivity narratives





sioux and biography

japanese internment and (sources or personal narratives)  

TIP:  You can also ask the library reference staff for help in refining your search strategy.

Primary Sources in Library Databases

Please click on the following subject guides to locate relevant digital primary sources for your research.

Primary Sources on the Web

Thanks to a number of major digitization initiatives, MANY published sources (books, journals, etc.) are now freely available via digital web repositories. Most of these materials are in the public domain - i.e. not copyright-protected.  For the U.S. this means titles published prior to 1922; copyright "cutoff" dates vary for other countries.  Googling by title or author will likely retrieve materials in these digital repositories, but you can also search their contents individually.  Notable examples:

How to Search for Names in Newspapers

Searching for Names in Languages other than English

Searching for Place Names

How to Search for Primary Sources in Google