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Primary Sources: Finding Primary Sources

This guide is an introduction to primary sources research.

Citation Chasing

Published books and articles will include source citations and lists of works cited.  Check these resources for references to primary sources which might be useful for your project.  These citations should list the names of collections used and the archives, libraries, or institutions where they can be found.

Libraries vs Archives

Libraries = may be public or private institutions; collects a variety of media to support the educational, research, and entertainment needs of its community.

Archives = may be public or private institutions; manages the historical documents created and/or collected by its parent institution; generally focused on a singe topic or organization.

Collections on Microfilm

Some archives have microfilmed some of their collections which are then offered for sale to other institutions.  While most archives and libraries will not loan manuscript or archival material to individuals or other libraries, they will sometimes agree to loan microfilm copies of these collections through interlibrary loan.

Finding Primary Sources

Important Keywords

Manuscript collections or archives of organizational records often include some of the following keywords in their titles or content descriptions.  By including these words as keywords in a search, you have a better chance of finding collections of historical documents:

  • collection
  • papers
  • archive or archives
  • diaries
  • correspondence

Published Books and Articles

Many published secondary sources will include a Works Cited or Bibliography of the books, articles, and manuscript collections used by the author.  Primary sources are frequently listed together and will include the name of the collection, the name of the institution which owns the collection, and the city and state where they are located.

Library Catalogs

Library catalogs contain records for books, journals, databases, and other collections owned by a specific library.  Some catalogs, such as OCLC's WorldCat, will include records for items held by thousands of libraries.  Depending on the catalog's default search, the search results may include a wide variety of different formats.  To limit your results to manuscripts, look for a way to limit your search by type of material such as "archival" or "manuscript."  Switch to advanced search for more search options.

See the "Searching ACORN" tab for tips on searching locally owned collections.

See "Searching WorldCat" for tips on searching for items held by other libraries and institutions.

Online Resources

Depending on the size of the institution, some libraries and archives will list their manuscript and archival collections online so that researchers can find them more easily.  Lists of collection contents -- known as finding aids or research guides -- may also be available online.  These guides often provide a box by box list of what's in the collection, making it easier to find specific documents. 

The Vanderbilt Libraries maintain both an alphabetical list of collections and a subject guide to collections.

Some websites also provide lists of repositories within a geographic area or within a subject specialty. 

See "Searching Online" for more tips on finding resources online.