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Primary Sources: United States & Canadian History

Primary sources for research on the history of the United States and Canada.

A note about this guide...

This research guide is not a comprehensive list of primary source collections that might be relevant to your topic. With everyone researching something different, this would be impossible.  Also, discovering the right primary sources can be serendipitous, emerging organically from other searches, bibliography raiding, and browsing the stacks.

The resources listed here are meant to get you started thinking about the types of sources that might be out there, and where to begin searching for them.  Don't hesitate to contact me directly if you need help at any stage of your research!

Locating Primary Sources

Locating primary sources for historical research is an iterative process. It often involves consulting the secondary sources, tracking down primary sources used by others, going back to the literature as new names, events, and concepts emerge, then back to the tracking down potential primary documents.

For historians, some of the most fruitful searching happens in the library catalog.  Consider the following while on the hunt:

Search for authors - Individuals, organizations, and government branches/agencies can all be authors, and can be searched in library catalogs accordingly. Results might include autobiographies, published correspondence and diaries, interviews, government reports, hearings, and studies, periodicals and bulletins, and archival collections.

Search for formats - In a library catalog, published and unpublished primary source materials often have a subject heading that indicates its format.  See the "On the Shelves, In the Catalog" box on this page for some suggestions.

Know your subject headings - It helps to get to know how subject headings are used to describe your topic. For example, the subject headings Cuban Americans and Cubans--United States have slightly different meanings, and both could be useful for studying Americans of Cuban origin or Cubans in the United States, respectively.

On the Shelves, In the Catalog

In addition to print archives and digitized collections, primary sources can also be found in book form, published as collected documents or as appendices in a secondary source.  When searching the catalog for books, keep an eye out for published primary sources in the stacks.

In combination with a subject term or keyword on your topic, the following search terms can help you focus in on primary sources in the catalog:

"Personal narratives" - used to designate memoirs or autobiographical accounts of a war or event.

"Diaries" - a less commonly used catalog term, but still valuable.

"Correspondence" - used to describe personal letters or the collected correspondence of an individual or class of persons (e.g. soldiers).

"Interviews" - often used to describe oral histories in print, audio, and video formats.

"Sources" or "Archives" - describes collected documents of all kinds.

You can also search for an important historical figure as AUTHOR in the catalog. This will retrieve any published works or collections of papers written by that person. 

Secondary Sources

For secondary sources, return to the main History Research Guide

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