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American History: Primary Sources

Research information and Fordham library resources in American history; Librarian Jeannie Hoag, Editor.

What is a Primary Source?

Primary sources are original records created during the time under study. Because they were present during the experience, they offer an inside first-hand view of a particular event unfiltered by interpretation, criticism, or evaluation. 

Some examples:

  • Letters
  • Newspapers
  • Interviews
  • Photographs
  • Manuscripts
  • Memoirs
  • Speeches
  • Diaries (plural)
  • News film footage
  • Autobiographies
  • Official records
  • Personal narratives
  • Creative works: poetry, drama, novels, music, art
  • Anecdotes
  • Correspondence
  • Pamphlets
  • Case studies

American Library Association Guide for Primary Source Materials

A guide to finding, evaluating, and using primary source materials created by the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) of the American Library Association (ALA).

Search Strategies for Primary Sources

Use terms as Subjects that show subdivisions, e.g., personal narratives, sources, diaries, etc.


Civil War - sources

Immigrants - personal narratives

Women's suffrage - diaries

Eleanor Roosevelt - letters

(Make sure the subdivisions above are plural . . . diaries and not diary).

*[Research interest or person] - correspondence or diaries

*Rule: Sources goes with topics; Archives goes with people and organizations. To be safe, try this: [research interest] - sources or archives


*From the book Magic search: Getting the best results from your catalog and beyond/Kornegay, R.S., et al. (2009), Chicago: American Library Association.

To learn more about using Library of Congress sub-divisions when searching, read MagicSearch, available in the Reference section of the Fordham Westchester Library, call number: REF Z695.Z8 L523 2009.



What is a Secondary Source?

Digital Collections of Diaries, Letters, etc.


The following icons are used in the databases lists:

Limited simultaneous users. Limited simultaneous users.
Separate password required Password required.
Contains open access content.Open access content.
Contains multimedia content such as music or video.Contains multimedia content such as music or video.
Contains statistical data. Contains statistics / data.


Digital Historic Documents

Digital Collections of Early Books & Journals

Historic Audio Sources

Reference & Instruction Department

Reference & Instruction Department
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