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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 (diaries, books, newspapers), images (photographs, advertisements, posters), artifacts (buildings, clothing, coins) and audio/visual (songs, oral history interviews, films).

One of the more easily accessible primary sources are books. The UW Libraries has a fairly good collection of books published in the first half of the twentieth century. In addition primary sources such as collection of letters or a diary may later (even a century or more later) be published in book format. 

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

Finding Primary Sources Using UW Libraries Search

The UW Libraries has a strong collection of published primary sources dealing with history. These include books written during the period for your topic (i.e., during the the 1930s), books written by participants, published collections of correspondence and other personal writings, memoirs and reprints of collections of primary source material.

To find these books use the Advanced search option on UW Libraries Search.

By DATE -- use the following model:

By AUTHOR- search for books written by key participants and organizations. Change the box label from "Any" to "in author/creator" and type in the last name followed by the first name of the author.  For example: mosley oswald

By SPECIAL SUBJECT HEADINGS - do a keywords search for your topic/event and in the second box change the label from "Any" to "in subject" and use one of these special subject headings that designate primary sources: personnal narratives, correspondence, diaries, interviews, sources. Some terms may work better than others depending on your topic. See example:

search box example


Following Footnotes

One of the best ways to identify primary sources on a topic is to examine the footnotes and bibliography of a relevant secondary source. Look for published sources such as books, newspapers, magazines and government documents that are more likely to be found in the UW Libraries. Then use UW Libraries Search to discover if we own an item.

Using HathiTrust to Find Pre-1924 Books

If you are looking for books published before 1924 (though there is some post-1924 material), check HathiTrust. More than million books (also some magazines and government documents) 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. Note: these digitized items include books published in Britain, the United States and other countries. 

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.