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Research Guides

What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are the evidence of history. They are the first-hand accounts of an event or period of time created by participants or observers.

The availability and kinds of primary sources vary with time period and topic. There are more sources available for the 19th, 20th and 21st century than for earlier periods. This is due to:

  • An Increase in literacy
  • Growth of mass media including newspapers, radio, television, twitter, etc.


There are fewer sources available for earlier periods because:

  • Less has survived
  • Less was created (no newspapers, magazines, etc.)
  • Less literacy so most people could not read or write so fewer letters & diaries


Keep in mind that primary sources are usually in the original language. In other words most of the primary sources dealing with the French Revolution are in French rather than English. Relatively few primary sources have been translated into English.


How to Use This Guide

This guide links to major full-text collections of primary sources that are available at the University of Washington Libraries as well as to a few freely-available collections. There is also a section on using UW Libraries Search for primary sources that are available in print or microfilm at the UW Libraries. History Day students will need to be on campus in order to use most of the full-text sources.

Before visiting the UW Libraries do the following. 

  1. Fill out the History Day Topic Information Worksheet
  2. Look at the Finding Primary Sources Using UW Libraries Search handout and then use UW Libraries Search to identify primary sources relevant to your topic
  3. Fill out the UW Libraries Book List with the relevant information
  4. Fill out the relevant century checklist for your topic


Once in the library go to the relevant century page on this guide and begin searching the databases that have been identified as the most useful for their topic.  


We generally have more sources for American history than for non-American and there are more sources available for the 19th & 20th centuries than for earlier periods.


Say you are working on William Lloyd Garrison especially his work on the abolition of slavery. 

Step 1. Find some background information on Garrison. You can do a quick search in wikipedia or use the resources you have at your school library. You discover he lived from 1805-1879. Fill out the History Day Topic Information Worksheet with this information.

Step 2. So this means the primary sources you'll want to use are listed on the 19th c. page. Ask yourself what types of sources (newspapers, women's diaries, government reports, etc.) might cover William Lloyd Garrison. Well he was an abolitionist publisher so he is likely to be covered in newspapers and magazines of the time.

Step 3. Identify the newspapers & magazines on the page that are likely to cover the topic of abolitionism and fit the time period (prior to the Civil War so before 1861). Possibilities include African American Newspapers, American Periodicals & the New York Times, etc. 

Step 4. Search each of these collections for articles by and about Garrison and about slavery and abolition. Be sure to save these articles on a thumbdrive so that you have a copy.

Step 5. You may also want to search, later when you're at home, the freely available primary source collections: Chronicling American, American Memory & HathiTrust.

Evaluating Primary Sources

Primary materials need to be carefully read and interpreted. Some questions to ask include:

  1. Who created the source and for what original purpose?
  2. Did the creator have firsthand knowledge?
  3. What biases or hidden agendas did the creator have? Is the document meant to persuade or inform?
  4. Was the source originally meant to be private or public?
  5. When was the source created? Soon after the event, years later?

For more explanation on how to use and interpret primary sources see: