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Primary Sources: Find Primary Sources

What are they and how do you find them?

Find Primary Sources Using Books

Books are essential places to look when searching for primary sources. The book itself may be the source, or it may contain primary source material, such as images, letters, or speeches.

Methods for unearthing primary source material in book catalogs, such as the Auraria Library Start my Research search box, and online collections:

Limit by genre/format words. This is an important strategy which will work in the Library's catalog, on the Web, and in other online collections. Use words describing a type of primary source combined with topic keywords.

These recommended words include commonly-used words as well as words such as "oratory" used in many online catalogs and collections:

photographs,  correspondence, interviews, surveys, polls, memoirs, blogs, oratory, speeches, works, sources, primary sources, addresses, pictorial, transcript, maps, diaries, interviews, personal narratives, miscellania, and quotations.

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. A link to a sample bibliography is below.

Sample bibliographies:

Primary Sources and Elusive Historical Info: Unearthing Gems

Discover hidden treasures and personal recollections. Historical research may wander beyond typical collections. Resources you need could be within a file cabinet in a half-forgotten room at a local business, in a church basement, in a tiny public library in Podunk USA, or in someone’s memory. To track this kind of elusive information, ask yourself the following questions:

Where did an event you want to research occur? Check with that area’s library, historical society, newspaper, or museum to see if they know possible contacts. In a smaller town, the post office or other long-time local business employees may have ideas. Once you have a last name, check local phone directories. If the “expert” has died, there may be relatives who can help.

Who’s written about your topic locally? Worldcat.org or the online catalog of a local library may turn up self-published or community-sponsored writings or media that will be useful on their own, and additionally useful if a subject enthusiast will speak with you. The local newspaper may have existed during the time-period you’re researching (although older local newspapers are often not searchable online.)  Chat directly with a librarian, archivist, historian, or journalist if online directories aren’t revealing what you’re looking for.

Find Primary Resources Using Databases

The Auraria Library subscribes and links to numerous online collections containing primary resources from time periods throughout history, worldwide. Identify the best primary source database for your research by going to Auraria Library's Database List (linked below)  and using any of the keywords listed below. This will efficiently bring you to appropriate collections.

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

 Have suggestions on more keywords that might be linked to retrieve the best databases?  Great, let's improve the list! Contact Ellen.Metter@ucdenver.edu

Just a few examples of noteworthy databases featuring primary resources.

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.