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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Finding Primary Sources of Music in Libraries and Archives

A guide to identifying, locating, and accessing primary sources (including manuscripts, early editions, programs, interviews, and more). This guide covers both digital and physical collections.


Personal writings - including letters, correspondence, and diaries - from the composer or performer you are researching can be excellent primary sources to add a human dimension to your research and analysis. Interviews and oral histories are another great primary source that can help you study a particular work or musical moment in time through a composer or performer's own words.

This page collects tips for finding letters, diaries, and interviews in the library catalog as well as recommendations for digital archives beyond UIUC where you can browse for similar materials.

Finding Primary Sources Through the Library Catalog

To look for interviews in the library catalog, try a search for the composer or performer you are researching and add "interviews" to your search. If you are just looking to browse, you can also try exploring the following subject heading searches. For a refresher on how to search by subject in the catalog, refer to our instructions on searching for scores & recordings from the finding music materials guide!

Try a subject heading search for:

  • Jazz musicians--Interviews
  • Pianists--Interviews
  • Musicians--Interviews

To look for letters in the library catalog, try a search for the particular performer or composer you are researching try adding terms like "correspondence" or "personal correspondence" to your search.

To get a sense of what kinds of materials are available, browse subject heading searches like:

  • Composers--Correspondence
  • Compositeurs--Correspondance

For other personal writings, try a search for the performer or composer you are researching and add "diaries""diary", or (depending on the composer's language and nationality) "journaux intimes".

Local Archival Collections

In addition to checking out the digital archives in the next box, there are also archival materials (including oral histories and diaries!) that you can browse right here at UIUC. Keep in mind that archives work a little differently from libraries - you usually can't just show up without planning ahead.

You may need to coordinate your visit in advance to give the archivists time to pull and prepare materials for you to look at. It's also important to note that archival materials cannot be checked out, you'll have to look at them during your visit, so plan to visit when you have some time to spend with the materials!

To learn more about how to schedule a visit to the archives and what the access procedures look like, check out the University Archive's information about how to plan a visit.

Digital Interview & Oral History Collections Beyond UIUC

There are also many archival collections that have digitized materials you can explore online if you aren't able to travel across the country to consult a particular archive. Check out some of the collections below to listen to interviews and oral histories that are digitally available!