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Cooperstown Graduate Program Research Guide: Primary Sources

What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are documents or objects that provide direct, first-hand evidence. On the other hand, secondary sources analyze, discuss, and comment upon primary sources. Disciplines define primary sources differently. To the scientist, they might be reports of original research or personal papers; to the journalist, they might be interviews or letters. The researcher’s relation to source is important in terms of proximity and determination of source type. Format, content, use, and interpretation must be considered. Remember, ask your instructor when in doubt about whether something is a primary source.

Below you will find tips on searching for primary sources, as well as selected lists of reference books, databases, and websites that provide access to primary sources.


Tips for Finding Primary Sources

Primary sources may be available in print, in library databases, on websites, or in microform collections. Print primary sources, or print reproductions of primary sources, are sometimes available in archives and libraries. In addition, primary sources are increasingly found online in digitized form. These may be found in library databases or on websites. Primary sources are also available in microform, a format that has been used for many years to preserve documents, as well as to save storage space. 

Tips for finding primary sources:

  • When searching print and online access tools use search terms such as:

    •  SOURCES







    • PAPERS


  • Look for titles of primary sources in secondary sources and in lists included in bibliographies of secondary sources. Use text, class, and library bibliographies for recommended titles or listings of primary sources.

  • Browse library shelves around other relevant books. This is often a wonderful way to discover collections of primary sources that have been published in a book format.

On this guide you will find a partial listing of primary source materials available in Milne Library. This includes a listing of reference books, databases, websites, and microform collections containing primary source materials. Remember, this is only a partial listing. More primary sources can be found through searching print and online access tools and browsing the library shelves in relevant areas.

Databases Available Through Milne Library

Below are some databases that may be helpful for primary source research. Some databases only list sources, whereas others include the full text of sources. All of the following databases are listed on the library website alphabetically by title under the Databases tab.

Books in Milne Library's Reference Collection

Below is a partial listing of books in Milne Library’s Reference Collection that may be helpful for primary source research. Some titles only list sources, whereas others include the text of sources. 

Websites for Primary Sources

Primary sources are increasingly found online in digitized form. Listed below are some websites that contain primary source materials. Consult your instructor on whether you are allowed to use primary source materials available via websites.

  • Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers (Library of Congress) - Search select American historic newspaper pages from 1836-1922 or use the U.S. Newspaper Directory to find information about American newspapers published between 1690-present.
  • Digital Public Library of America - Virtual library of millions of items from 2,000 American libraries, archives, and museums documenting American cultural heritage. Can search and scan through the united collection of millions of items, including by timeline, map, format, subject, and partner.
  • New York Heritage Digital Collections - Provides free access to more than 170 distinct digital collections, totaling hundreds of thousands of items representing a broad range of historical, scholarly, and cultural materials held in libraries, museums, and archives throughout the state. Collection items include photographs, letters, diaries, directories, maps, newspapers, books, and more.
  • World Digital Library - Makes available on the Internet, free of charge and in multilingual format, significant primary materials from all countries and cultures.
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