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Primary Sources: Finding Secondary Sources

This guide is an introduction to primary sources research.

Background Research

Published works on your topic can offer many clues to finding primary source material for your project.  In addition to listing potential collections of primary source documents, they can be helpful guides for finding individuals or important events relating to your topic.

Be sure to check Works Cited and Bibliographies which accompany published books and articles for leads to additional sources.

Finding Associates

Your background research may reveal the names of close friends or associates of the person you are writing about.    Personal letters and/or journals by these individuals can provide another perspective on your topic.  In cases where no collections or archives on your topic exist, writings by these associates may be the closest you can get to a primary source.

Finding Secondary Sources

Background Research

Preliminary research will identify people, places, and events which have a bearing on your project.  These sources may include biographies, books and articles on the history of the time period you are studying, and other subject matter which will acquaint you with your topic and place it in historical, political, and social context. 

This research may include secondary sources (another author's research and opinions based on original historical documents) or tertiary sources (based on secondary sources without examining original historical documents). 

General History Databases

The following databases are good, general databases to start your initial history survey for your topic.  For a list of all history databases, please see Research Databases in History.

  • JSTOR 
    Large and important archive for academic journals, books, and primary sources in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. Many journals do not have current issues.
  • ProQuest
    Search all ProQuest databases simultaneously. Includes arts, humanities, social sciences, news, and science and technology.
  • America: History and Life
    Index of literature covering the history and culture of the United States and Canada. Journal articles, book titles, book reviews, and dissertations.
  • Historical Abstracts
    Index of academic historical journals on the history of the world (excluding the United States and Canada) from 1450 to the present, including world history, military history, women's history, history of education, etc.

Biographical Information

Here are some databases which contain biographical information:

  • African American Biographical Database
    Collection of African American history: biographical sketches, rare books. Includes content of Black Biographical Dictionaries 1790-1950.
  • American National Biography Online
    Biographical essays profiling people from all periods of American history and culture. Bibliographic information, some illustrations, and online resources are included.
  • Biography and Genealogy Master Index
    Index of reference sources containing biographies. Good source for small journals and publications not mentioned in some of the larger databases such as Who's Who and American National Biography..
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography
    Profiles of past and present authors, historians, journalists, screenwriters, publishers, and playwrights discussing their lives and careers and critical response to their works. Includes the Documentary Series, Main Series, and Yearbook.
  • Hathi Trust
    Digitized collections of some of the nation’s great research libraries, established in this repository to archive and share their digital content.
  • HeritageQuest Online 
    Collection of genealogical and historical sources, with coverage dating back to the 1700s. Searches U.S. Federal Censuses, genealogy and local history books, Periodical Source Index (PERSI), Revolutionary War records, Freedman's Bank Records, slave records (from either the 1850 or 1860 US Census) including counts of enslaved people by state, and the Memorials, Petitions and Private Relief Actions from the U.S. Serial Set.
  • Marquis Who's Who
    Biographical information for newsworthy American and international figures in the areas of business, education, entertainment, government, health care, law, religion, science and technology, the arts, and sports.
  • World Who's Who
    Lives and achievements of the most distinguished men and women from almost every country in the world. Career, contact and other biographical details.