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Primary Sources for Humanities and Social Sciences : Finding and Using Primary Sources

Guide to locating primary sources, with an emphasis on online sources, in the UW-Madison Libraries' collections for research in the humanities and social sciences.

General Tips

  • Begin your research with reference and other secondary sources (books and articles) that give you background and a framework for interpreting primary sources.
  • Look for primary sources in the footnotes and bibliographies of secondary source books and articles.
  • Search catalogs for primary sources in libaries, special collections and archives.
  • Look for online primary sources. Many primary sources have been digitized and are available on the Web. There are two kinds of primary sources available online: those from library subscription databases and documents and other materials, such as audio recordings or photographs, in the collections of libraries and archives.
  • Ask a librarian for guidance in finding and evaluating primary sources related to your topic. Depending on your topic and need, you may want to contact a subject specialist librarian.

Library Catalogs

One way to find primary sources is to search library catalogs. The Library Catalog and WorldCat listed below are two such catalogs. Also see Archival Sources tab for other catalogs for archival sources.

Library Catalog Search Tips

  • Searching by primary-source format words: There are words in catalog records that identify the type of primary source. These are often part of the subject heading, or subject words, in the record. These may include: advertisements, autobiographies, collected works, correspondence, description and travel, diaries, documents, interviews, journal, letters, manuscripts, pamplets, personal narratives, sources, and speeches. You can combine a primary-source format word with words describing your topic such as an event or person (e.g., letters and lincoln; diaries and civil war). For a specific search, type in the primary-source format word in the Subject box in Advanced Search of the Library Catalog. 
  • Searching by author: To find diaries, letters, autobiographies, personal papers, etc., search a person's name as an author (not as a subject, because that will find materials about them instead of works the person wrote).
  • Searching for manuscripts: One way to find manuscripts in the library is to choose Manuscript/Theses as Type under Limits in Advanced Search of the Library Catalog and then adding your topic (e.g., civil war). Another way is to search manuscripts in Subject box in Advanced Search of the Library Catalog. The second search will bring up items that are manuscripts but may not be in a manuscript format (i.e., manuscripts on microfilm).
  • Identifying primary sources: Look for the publication date or, if you have a reprinted book, look for the original publication date. If the original publication date is during the time you are studying, you have a primary source. Primary sources may be compiled, edited, and printed some time after an event or historical period. Also look at the birth/death dates of the author. If the birth/death dates of the author are such that the person lived during the time of your event or historical period, you might have a primary source. Look at the notes in the record; there may be clues as to whether or not it is a primary source. The words facsimile or reprint might indicate primary source.