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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
  • News film footage
  • Autobiographies
  • Official records
  • Personal narratives
  • Creative works: poetry, drama, novels, music, art
  • Anecdotes
  • Correspondence
  • Pamphlets
  • Case studies

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.

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).


Recommended Primary Source Resources

Digital Collections of Diaries, Letters, etc.

Digital Historic Documents

Digital Collections of Early Books & Journals

Historic Audio Sources

Reference & Instruction Department

Reference & Instruction Department
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