• Researching for Historical Accuracy: Using Primary Documents for Understanding

    Primary documents are essential for understanding events and people. Primary documents can be any of the following, as long as they are created at the time something happened:

    • Artifacts (physical objects)   
    • Maps   
    • Posters
    • Pictures   
    • Letters  
    • Sound Recordings
    • Photographs   
    • Diaries  
    • Motion Pictures
    • Drawings   
    • Advertisements   
    • Cartoons
    • Newspapers   
    • Magazines  
    • Census Reports
    • Telegrams   
    • Memoranda   
    • Press Releases
    • Patents   
    • Reports   
    • Congressional Records
    • Speeches (transcripts or recordings)       


    ALL SOURCES MUST BE CITED WHEN USED IN ANY PROJECT. See the Citation tools page for samples of citations and MLA formatting guidelines.

    Where to Find Primary Documents:


        Many books have primary sources in them. This may mean that the whole book is a primary source, like an autobiography or diary or a book of letters, or it may mean that a secondary source CONTAINS primary source material.

        There are many books available online. Many are available through databases to which the library subscribes. Some additional sites are listed below:

    Library of Congress: American Memory Collection

    Bartleby.com - Great Books Online

    Project Gutenberg

    Google Books (may not be the whole book, but can look at many books inside. Cannot print.)

    World Digital Library

        Most online databases now provide access to primary sources. Passwords for these are listed in your passbooks on pages 38-39. Go to Library and select High School Databases.
    Ones to try include:
    • ABC-CLIO Social Studies
    • Gale Virtual Reference Library
    • Gale World History in Context 
    • World Book Online
    • Britannica Online

        There are many places on the Web to find primary sources. Listed below are some of the best. Be patient with these sites and be willing to explore. You WILL be rewarded for your efforts!

    You may also want to try searching for your topic, followed by the term primary documents. Evaluate all sites for authority, accuracy, bias, and currency.

    National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)


    Library of Congress (Try the Digital Preservation, American Memory, and Prints & Photographs, and more)
    Smithsonian Institution (Choose from a variety of online research tools.)
    Use this address to get information on citing sources from the Archives. http://siarchives.si.edu/services/rights-and-reproduction
    High-quality archival photos from the Bettman Archives.
    (Could blocked from school.)
    Access images from museums, etc.
    (may be blocked from school)
    Bridgeman Art Culture History
    Find images from over 8,000 collections.
    Bridgeman Art Culture History Site subcollection.

    Digital History (Contains links to museums, archives, and more)

    Cornell Library Digital Collections

    Internet Public Library – Historical Documents and Sources

    Photos with commentary.
    Creative Commons
    Users of this site have created licenses for their work, which means it is sometimes easier to cite.
    Search for The Civil War Collections under Collections.
    Digitized historic newspapers on the Library of Congress website. Narrow your search by date, search for subjects, etc.