History 115: Primary Sources

The World of the Mongol Empire
Professor: Anne Reinhardt
Fall 2019

What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are first-hand accounts by participants of a particular event or materials produced at the same historical time period. 

If you were examining racism in the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the article in the encyclopedia on the "Negro" would be a primary source. However, an article in the American Historical Review analyzing racism in the Britannica would be a secondary source. (Richard Marius, A Short Guide to Writing About History, pp. 14-15.)

Some examples of primary sources include:

  • Memoirs, speeches, writings, correspondence
  • Papers of a political party, agency, or association
  • Official documents such as congressional hearings and reports
  • Contemporary magazine and newspaper articles
  • Contemporary art, films, literature, and music
  • Contemporary artifacts, such as buildings and monuments

Search Beyond Williams

The strategies mentioned on this page can also be used in the following catalogs.

Finding Primary Sources in Library Catalogs

Search by Author

Memoirs, speeches, writings, or correspondence of a person can be found by doing a Browse Search by author in the library catalog:

Search by Subject

Usually, library catalog records have at least one subject heading describing the general topic of the book, video, or other material. Subject headings can be subdivided to indicate further topical breakdown, geographical location, time period, or the form of the composition. Some of the subdivisions that indicate the item is a primary source include:

Sources: collections of contemporary writings

Description and Travel: includes travelers' accounts

Search by Keywords

Using the Advanced Search screen you can combine your topic with the subdivisions mentioned above. Choose to search in the subject field to make the searches more precise.

Search by Title

To search by title, you need to have a known title in mind. Bibliographies can help identify relevant titles. See the bibliographies of the resources in the reference sources page of this guide for suggestions, and consult the bibliographies from class readings and your secondary research.