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Research Guides

Why Use Primary Sources


One way to get a glimpse of the past is to read what people read, to see what people saw. In other words, to use primary sources -- evidence left by the past.  There are many kinds of primary sources including texts (letters, diaries, government reports, books, newspaper accounts, novels, autobiographies), images (photographs, paintings, advertisements, posters), artifacts (buildings, clothing, sculpture, coins) and audio/visual (songs, oral history interviews, films).

One of the more easily accessible primary sources are books. These can be books written during the period for your topic (i.e., during the 1950s), books written by participants, published collections of correspondence and other personal writings, memoirs and reprints of primary source material. In addition we have digital access to books going back to the late 15th century.

UW Libraries Search and other tools can be used to find these primary sources which may be available in print, online and in microfilm. 

This page focuses on finding primary sources in book format. Use the resources listed under the other Primary Source tabs to find other types of material.

Using UW Libraries Search to Find Primary Sources


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One of the best ways to find a primary source at the UW Libraries is to search UW Libraries Search for the title of a published work (book, magazine, newspaper, etc.) that you've identified in the bibliography or footnotes of your secondary sources. For example these footnotes dealing with a slave revolt leads to a number of primary sources that are available in the library.

You can also use these search tactics to identify published primary sources:

  • Use special subject terms that designate primary sources in conjunction with your topic:
    • personal narratives
    • diaries
    • correspondence
    • interviews
    • sources
    • early works to 1800
      • Example: civil rights united states interviews
      • Example: "trail of tears" sources
      • Example: japanese relocation diaries
  • Search for books written by key participants and organizations. For example: "bayard rustin" 
  • Limit your search by publication year. Use the Advanced Search option in UW Libraries Search and use the start and end dates of your publication range. 

Using HathiTrust to Find Pre-1924 Books

If you are looking for books published before 1924, check HathiTrust. More than million books (also some magazines and government reports) free of copyright are available full-text and can be downloaded as pdfs. Plus you can search through the entire text to find the information you seek. 

The Advanced Catalog Search provides options to search for specific titles, authors and keywords and to limit your search by fulltext availability (full view only) and publication date.

Current books and books still in copyright are not available full-text but you can usually use the search feature to pinpoint the pages you might need. Then search the UW Libraries to find a copy of the printed book.

Digitized Collections of Early Books

These digitized collections of early books may be useful if you are working on a topic dealing with colonial history.