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Finding Primary Sources in Humanities and Social Sciences

For additional assistance, Ask a Librarian.

Finding Primary Sources

Primary sources can be difficult to find. Most databases do not have an option that allows for direct searching on primary sources. They are often interspersed in books or disorganized in large collections of materials. These guides will help you find primary sources.

For assistance in the Sciences, please see our Primary and Secondary Sources in the Sciences Guide.

Contents

Introduction - What are primary sources?

In the humanities (subjects such as art, English and philosophy) and the social sciences (subjects such as anthropology, history, political science, sociology), primary sources are generally defined as material produced at the time of an event, or by a person being studied. Examples of primary sources are:

  • personal and professional correspondence
  • professional papers
  • diaries
  • memoirs
  • manuscripts
  • constitutions, treaties, pacts and other political documents
  • photographs
  • works of art and literature
  • artifacts and other objects
  • letters
  • speeches
  • autobiographies
  • oral histories
  • interviews

Depending on when they were written, newspapers and magazine/journal articles may also be considered primary sources. For example, a New York Times article written in 1865 may be considered a primary document when one is studying the U.S. Civil War.

Finding Primary Sources Relating to an Individual

Politicians, authors, artists, composers, activists, and other famous (and sometimes not-so-famous) individuals often have their correspondence, professional papers, diaries, memoirs, manuscripts, and other writings collected in books. The easiest way to find these documents is to search the library catalog for the person as an author. To do this:

  • Access the Library Catalog from the from the left column of the library’s website:
  • On the second line of the catalog search box, next to “author,” type your person’s name:
  • When you complete your search, you will have a list of books written by your author or a list of books in which the author’s shorter works have been collected.

To find even more by individuals

  • Repeat your search in WorldCat to find items that Dickinson does not own. To access WorldCat, click on the “Databases” link from the from the left column of the library’s website then scroll all the way to the bottom of the database list, and click on WorldCat to access the database.
  • Once in the database, type your person’s name on the first line of WorldCat’s search box, and, next to it, change Keyword to Author.
  • After you find a book you’d like to use, go back to the library’s website, click on the “Borrow From Other Libraries” link under Quick Links, and use PALCI (our Interlibrary Loan service) to obtain the item from one of Dickinson’s partner libraries.

Finding Primary Sources Collected in Books

Primary sources such as treaties, political correspondence, photographs, works of art and artifacts, letters, excerpts from diaries, speeches, oral histories, and interviews are often reproduced in books that analyze the source within a larger context. To find these sources:

  • Access the Library Catalog from the from the left column of the library’s website:
  • Type the keywords relating to your topic on the first search line. Examples of search phrases might be “American history” or “Risorgimento” or “Impressionism” (without quotes).
  • Change the second search field from “author” to “all fields (keyword)” and, next to it, type the phrase “documents or sources” (without quotes). Your search screen should look like this:
  • When you complete your search you will see a list of books that most likely have primary sources in the back of the book, or interspersed throughout the book.

To find even more documents collected in books

  • Repeat your search in WorldCat to find items that Dickinson does not own. To access WorldCat, click on the “Databases” link from the from the left column of the library’s website then scroll all the way to the bottom of the database list, and click on WorldCat to access the database.
  • After you find a book you’d like to use, go back to the library’s website, click on the “Borrow From Other Libraries” link under Quick Links, and use PALCI (our Interlibrary Loan service) to obtain the item from one of Dickinson’s partner libraries.

Finding Primary Sources in Databases

The Dickinson College library provides access to databases that contain nothing but primary sources.

  • Access the Library Databases list from the left column of the library’s website:
  • Once on the databases page, select the “Databases by Format” tab at the top of the page. Then, select “Archival and Primary Source Collections” from the list of links:
  • You will see a list of databases that provide direct access to historical and contemporary primary sources. Please read the descriptions carefully to make sure the databases cover the correct subject and time periods for your research project.
  • Be sure to check this list often as we frequently add new databases to our collection.

Finding Newspaper Articles

  • Access the Library Databases list from the left column of the library’s website:
  • Once on the databases page, select the “Databases by Format” tab at the top of the page. Then, select “Newspaper Collections” from the list of links:
  • You will see a list of databases that provide direct access to historical and current newspaper articles, including the New York Times from 1851.
  • Be sure to check this list often as we frequently add new databases to our collection.

Finding Primary Sources in the Dickinson College Archives and Special Collections

The Archives and Special Collections Department houses a variety of primary source material in both published and unpublished formats.

Published materials, such as books, pamphlets, journals, and newpapers, can be found using the Library Catalog, as described above.

Unpublished materials include items such as letters, diaries, photographs, and artifacts. These items are not listed in the Library Catalog. The best way to find unpublished primary sources in the Archives and Special Collections is to contact a member of the staff in the department.

To see when the Archives is open, please visit their website.

You may contact the Archives at archives@dickinson.edu or at 245-1399.

Finding Primary Sources in Other Archives (Historical Societies, etc.)

There are a variety of online tools that you can use to find primary sources in archives beyond Dickinson College. These guides are useful as a starting point. It is always a good idea to contact an archivist about your research topic if you think they might have resources relevant to your topic. Archivists know their collections very well and can often point you to materials that would not be apparent from a database or internet search.

Access to Archival Databases
Online gateway to the records of the United States Government managed by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).
American Memory Project
A large website featuring select materials from the collections of the Library of Congress; includes photographs, personal papers, books, maps, sound recordings, and moving pictures.
Ancestry Library Edition
This premiere genealogy database is distributed exclusively by ProQuest to the library market and is ideal for the family historian or the social historian. Ancestry Library Edition provides the most genealogical information available on-line, with more than 4 billion names in over 4,000 collections. It offers a wide and diverse variety of unique content to help users trace their family lineage or help historians access historical records that have previously not been available online. It is continuously expanding with new content added every business day.
WorldCat
The most comprehensive database of books and other materials found in libraries worldwide.

Helpful Websites

AmericanPresident.org
A non-partisan resource on the history and function of the American presidency. Brought to you by the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs, the nation's leading research institute for the study of the American presidency.
Archives USA
A searchable directory of 5,500 repositories and over 140,000 collections of primary source material housed in archival facilities throughout the United States.
The Ben Franklin Portal
A comprehensive, one-stop site that includes carefully curated educational resources, Franklin's own writings and proverbs, and tens of thousands of websites scattered throughout cyberspace.
Chronicling America: American Historic Newspapers
1900 - 1910. From the Library of Congress.
Historical Census Browser
U.S. Census Data from the University of Virginia Library.
Index of Medieval Medical Images
From UCLA.
The Library of Congress (United States)
Digitizing more every day!
National Archives (United States)
National Archives & Record Administration. Records of the U.S. Government, including political papers, historical papers, family history, and art.
National Archives of the United Kingdom
UK government records and record management online.
Presidential Recordings
From the University of Virginia. Franklin Roosevelt through Nixon.
Presidential Speeches
Miller Center for Public Affairs.
World War II - A Digital Library
Historical government publications from Southern Methodist University.