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Research 101 (older version): Primary Sources

I Am Looking for Primary Sources

Primary sources are original documents created or experienced at the time of the event being researched. They are first-hand observations, contemporary accounts of events, and viewpoints of the time.

This page focuses on primary sources for the arts & humanities and social sciences. (In the sciences, primary sources include journal articles that detail the results of original research.) 


  • Newspaper accounts
  • Letters, diaries, scrapbooks
  • Government documents (congressional transcripts, laws, government agency-produced statisticsetc.)
  • Personal accounts, autobiographies, memoirs
  • Images and museum artifacts
  • Speeches
  • Oral histories and interviews
  • Data from scientific experiments

Other types of information may also be considered to be primary sources if they are analyzed for their historical or cultural significance. If you're not sure what counts as a primary source for your assignment, ask your professor.

Below are different strategies for finding historical primary sources.

1. Search in OneSearch

Although there is no "primary source" filter in OneSearch, you can filter your results in ways that will make you more likely to find primary sources, such as:

STRATEGY A: Use the "resource type" filters on the right-hand side of the screen. Remember to click on "show more" to see all your options!)

resource type click on show more

Depending on your topic and results list, you may be able to filter for:

  • images
  • maps
  • newspaper articles
  • government documents
  • research data sets

STRATEGY B:  In the search box, adding words such as "oral history" or "diary" or "testimony" may be able to help you find such sources.

Some subjects will have more of these kinds of sources than others. Here are some examples of documents found with this technique:

Screenshot of result for queer brown voices: personal narratives of Latina/o LGBT ActivismOneSearch result for Before the fires: An oral history of African American life in the Bronx from the 1930s to the 1960s

Onesearch result for Hurricane Katrina GAO preliminary observations regarding preparedness, response, and recovery




2. Search in Relevant Library Databases

Hostos Library provides access to databases that specialize in primary source materials.

All Primary Source Databases

Newspaper Databases

3. Search Google Books.

Some documents fall into the public domain and are not covered by copyright. Under current copyright laws, public domain includes the following:

  • Government documents
  • Works whose authors have agreed to let them be public domain documents
  • All works published in the U.S. before 1923
  • Works 70 years after the death of the author.

There are more complicated rules about anything published between 1923 and 1989 - if you want these details, click here.
What this means for your research is that there are many relevant primary sources available in the public domain. Google Books has digitized and made available many such books.

(1) Enter your search terms.

(2) Some books on Google Books only offer a limited preview. If you like, in the Advanced Book Search, you can limit your results to Full view only books.

(3) Pick a date before 1923 - you can pick a date close to your historical event to try to get contemporaneous sources.

(4) Hit search!

Google Books advanced search

Go back to finding and evaluating sources

 Finding research sources Evaluating research sources

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