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Research 101


What are 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. Please note, in the sciences, primary sources include journal articles that detail the results of original research.

Primary Sources: Examples

  • Newspaper accounts
  • Letters, diaries, scrapbooks
  • Government documents including congressional transcripts, laws, government agency-produced statistics and etc.
  • 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.

Primary Sources in OneSearch | Strategy One

Strategy One

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.

Use the "resource type" filters on the left-hand side of the screen. Remember to click on "show more" to see all your options!

Resource Type Filters Available

  • images
  • maps
  • newspaper articles
  • government documents
  • research data sets
resource type click on show more
Image 01: Screenshot of OneSearch resource type filters with "show more" encircled with a note stating, "click to see more."

Primary Sources in OneSearch | Strategy Two

Strategy Two

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

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.

Queer brown voices
Image 01: Screenshot of OneSearch result titled "Queer brown voices: personal narratives of Latina/o LGBT Activism."
Edge becomes the center
Image 02: Screenshot of OneSearch result titled "The edge becomes the center : an oral history of gentrification in the twenty-first century."
Oral history from refugee camp
Image 03: Screenshot of OneSearch result titled "Charles Ugboko oral history interviews by S. Elizabeth Bird and Fraser Ottanelli, December 12, 2009" with oral history highlighted.

Primary Sources in Library Databases

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

Primary Sources in the Public Domain via Google Books

Public Domain

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.

The Public Domain and Your Research

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.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Enter your search terms.
  2. Some books on Google Books only offer a limited preview. In "Advanced Book Search" you can limit your results to "Full view only" books.
  3. Pick a date before 1923. Tip: Pick a date close to your historical event to try to get contemporaneous sources.
  4. Hit search!
Google Books advanced search
Image 01: Screenshot of Google Books Advanced Book Search. The search box, search filter, publication date filter, and Google Search button are encircled.