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Subject Guide for History

Finding Historical Primary Sources


What Is a Primary Source?


A primary source is a document, object, or other evidence about the topic you are investigating that was created during the time period under study. It provides direct evidence and thus offers an inside view into events of the period. Primary sources come in many forms: documents (diaries, letters, speeches, government documents, books, periodicals, interviews); creative works (novels, music, poetry); and artifacts (photos, pottery, clothing).


Finding Primary Sources in the University of Colorado at Boulder Libraries


There are many primary sources available in the Libraries, including paper documents such as books, pamphlets, broadsides, and manuscripts from the period under study, as well as electronic, microform, and printed collections of these documents published at a later date. You can locate relevant items by searching in the Chinook library catalog.


+ Tips for Searching for Primary Sources in Chinook


There are several ways to search effectively for primary sources in Chinook:


  • Do a Keyword search on your topic. For more flexible searching, think of various ways to express your search terms - synonyms, broader terms, and narrower terms.

    • Then add special subject terms that identify primary materials: sources (more general), correspondence, diaries, early works, narratives, pamphlets, speeches, letters, documents, etc.

    • Also try limiting the dates of publication by year, entering the dates bounding your time period. For this search, leave off any special subject terms identifying primary materials.
  • Another approach is to do an Author search for books written by key participants (people or organizations) in the events you are investigating.

  • Once you have found a useful item on your topic, take note of the terms listed under Subject in the item's full Chinook record. Click on the links to find related materials.


If you are seeing primary sources on British topics, see the Finding guides to the British Studies collections in the University of Colorado at Boulder Libraries. These guides are the best source for finding primary-source material in the Libraries related to British Studies. They contain entries for primary materials, collections of sources, and some reference or research aids in the CU Boulder Libraries received 2005 or before. They do not list secondary works, standard printed sources such as literary texts, or current scholarly and popular periodicals.


Finding Primary Sources in Library Databases


You can see a large selection of databases under in Find Articles & Databases: History, broken down geographically:


You can also find historical sources under other relevant subjects like News & Newspapers - Historical Resources, Women & Gender Studies - History, and Government - Historical.


+ Tips for Developing Search Terms for Historical Topics

  • Thinking of terms couched in the language of the time period you are studying is particularly important for searching in full-text, primary-source databases. The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary is a great resource for finding these terms.

  • Avoid using redundant or overlapping search terms, e.g. using "19th century" and "Victorian period" or using "United States" in the Making of America database

  • Adding terms that represent geographical distinctions, time periods, or significant figures associated with your topic may be useful


Finding Primary Sources on Microforms


The Libraries owns a rich cache of primary sources on microforms that cover all areas of the world. You can search for these sets using broad terms like "world war" along with "microform" in a Keyword search. There are different ways you can find out what kinds of sources a microform collection contains, including online guides linked in the Chinook record, printed guides, and tables of contents and indexes that are included on the microforms themselves. Once you have determined on what reels, fiche, etc. items of interest are located, you can access them for viewing.


Finding Historical Government Documents


Use indexes to find historical government documents, for instance congressional hearings, treaties, census records, and laws. Most are located in the Government Information Library on the 3rd floor of Norlin Library. Staff there can help you use the indexes to these materials. It also holds a number of microfilm collections containing unpublished and declassified material from the State Department, Defense Department, CIA, Office of Strategic Services, National Security Council, and various presidents that can be searched in Chinook. The Library's web site includes information about the Government Information Library, hours and staff, and lists many links to web resources. See Find Articles & Databases: Government - Historical for primary-source databases in this area.


Finding Historical Material in the Special Collections Department


The Special Collections Department, on the 3rd floor of Norlin Library, houses a rare books collection and variety of special subject collections which are described on its web site. Special Collections staff can aid you in using its 70,000 plus volumes and several hundred feet of manuscripts. Works ranging from a 4,000-year-old cuneiform clay tablet to modern first editions are available for your research. Please note that many of these items are not represented in Chinook, so you will want to take a look in their card catalog.

Finding Primary Sources in the University of Colorado at Boulder Archives


The CU Archives collects and makes available primary source material on a broad range of subjects, particularly in the areas of Western Americana, politics, labor, and environmentalism. It also houses official documents of Boulder Campus and the University System Administration of the University of Colorado. The staff of the Archives, located in the basement of Norlin Library, can help you locate resources relevant to your research. Many of these items are unique and are not represented in Chinook.

Selected Free Web Resources


Using Primary Sources on the Web

Covers several important points -- what primary sources are, how to find them on the web, and how to evaluate and cite them -- and includes links to quality sites; from the History Section, Reference and User Services Association, Association of College and Research Libraries.

WWW Virtual Library: History

Gateway offering links to hundreds of sites providing historical resources, among them primary sources (click in the upper right-hand corner for English version).

WESSWeb: Western European Studies Section

Links to resources evaluated and selected by library subject specialists for the Western European Studies Section of the Association of College and Research Libraries.


Citing Your Sources

CU = Resources marked with this symbol are available in campus libraries and to students, staff, and faculty via the campus network. Use of these resources is subject to copyright laws and license limitations. Remote access information.