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History 456: Primary Sources in Library Catalogs

Civil War and Reconstruction
Professor: Charles Dew
Fall 2019

Search Strategies

The following strategies can be used in Williams library catalog and other library catalogs, such Williams WorldCat and HathiTrust Digital Library.   

Search by Author

Memoirs, speeches, writings, or correspondence of a person can be found by doing a Browse Search by author using the name (last name first) of the person.

Search by Subject

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

Personal narratives, Correspondence, Diaries, Interviews (useful when you don't have the name of a specific person)

Sources (collections of primary sources)

Caricatures and cartoons and Pictorial works

Search by Keywords

Use the Advanced Search to combine a subject for one of the subdivisions above and keywords or subjects for a topic.


  • Subject:diaries AND plantation*
  • Subject:correspondence AND soldier* AND civil war
  • Subject:personal narratives AND (women OR wives OR wife OR spouse*) AND civil war

Note: the * finds any ending; plantation or plantations, soldier or soldiers, spouse or spouses.

Limit by Date

Remember, primary sources were written around the same time as an event or during a particular historical time period. To find contemporary writings, you can do searches in the library catalog by subject and limit to the years in question. A word of caution: this search strategy will not find materials that were reprinted at a later date.

Search by Local Call Number

  • Do a Browse Search for Local call number ZZ13.
    This search will lead you to records of the Strickland Kneass Collection, part of the College Archives in Special Collections. Strickland Kneass collected 19th-century books, almanacs, magazines, and pamphlets on slavery -- particularly anti-slavery publications. Also included are accounts of the underground railroad, and even travellers' accounts of the African slave trade in Africa.
  • Do a Browse Search for Local call number ZZ36.
    This search will lead you to book materials from the Samuel C. Armstrong Collection, part of the College Archives in Special Collections. He was agent for the Freedmen's Bureau and founder of Hampton Institute. Archives also holds papers of Samuel C. Armstrong, see the collection guide for more information.

Search the Library Catalog

Find books, articles, & more

Search Williams WorldCat

Find items at other libraries

Advanced Search

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