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Primary Sources: Find Primary Sources

What are they and how do you find them?

Primary Source Tips

When looking for primary sources…

  • Give yourself time to conduct research, borrow materials from other libraries, and possibly visit other libraries, museums, archives, or people. 
  • Contact people local to the event you are researching to ask if they have relevant primary sources or to conduct an oral history.
  • Limit your search by date.
  • You may find primary sources, such as diary or interview excerpts, printed in books, articles and other sources.
  • Look in the bibliographies of the secondary sources on your topic to find the primary sources cited in that paper or book.


Books themselves may be primary sources, or may contain primary source material, such as images, letters, or speeches.

Methods for unearthing primary source material in book catalogs and online collections:

Limit by topic words. Use words describing a type of primary source (photographs, correspondence, interviews, surveys, polls, memoirs, etc.) combined with topic keywords. 

Example: Colorado diaries

Limit by year of publication.​ A book written in the year of a historical event, may itself be a primary source.

Locate bibliographies. You may find a book-length bibliography which points to primary sources for your topic area. Combine topic keyword(s) with the word bibliography. Sample titles are below.

Sample bibliographies:

Find Primary Resources: Using Databases

Word cloud showing useful primary source narrowing search terms including narratives maps oratory speeches correspondence blogs addresses interviews diaries transcript quotations and mapsThe Auraria Library subscribes and links to numerous online collections containing primary resources from time periods throughout history, worldwide. Here are just a few examples of noteworthy databases featuring nothing but primary resources.

We also have additional databases with primary sources. On Auraria Library's Database List (linked below) search for any of the keywords listed below for a list of databases that may contain primary sources.

  • Primary Sources
  • 20th (or 19th, 18th, 17th, or 16th, etc.) Century
  • Colorado
  • Western History
  • Historic newspapers
  • Classical Period
  • Colonial America
  • Renaissance
  • Middle Ages

Miscellaneous Primary Source Examples

In addition to the more obvious materials, primary sources may be:

  • Artifacts, including such items as theater performance programs, coins, or ticket stubs
  • Patents
  • Fieldwork
  • Works of art and fiction
  • Original documents such as birth certificates and property deeds
  • Audio and video recordings
  • Research data

Find Primary Sources: Using Public Documents

Public documents are also primary sources and include property records, corporation registrations, patents, trademarks, military records, licenses and permits, voter registration, court judgments, laws and regulations, and marriage, divorce, birth and death records, and more. Depending on the type of record, the information may be kept at the local, state, or national level and arrangements for finding and accessing public documents vary from state to state.