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Research Guides

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 from the late 19th centuries onward. 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. You'll find resources to find articles under each book title tab.

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
      • Example: women united states diaries
      • Example: haymarket riot sources
      • Example: environmentalists interviews
  • Search for books written by key participants and organizations. For example: "sanger margaret" 
  • 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. Or use the Publication Date option on the search results page to filter items by date.

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 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.