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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Primary Source Reprints

A guide to books and book sets that reprint primary sources.

Library Catalog

Published vs Unpublished Primary Sources

Unpublished primary sources are original documents and artifacts of all kinds that were created by individuals but not published (that is, made public --issued in a format that could be widely distributed) during the period you are studying. In the past, only archives and museums preserved these kinds of primary source materials, and researchers had to travel all over the world to use them. With the invention of microfilming, and later, digitization, it became possible to create facsimiles of large collections of primary source materials. Large research libraries like the UIUC Library have extensive collections of microfilm and digital facsimiles of unpublished primary sources. Universities also have rare books libraries and university archives, which hold original unpublished primary source materials.

In general, published primary source material covers a wide range of publications, including first-person accounts, memoirs, diaries, letters, newspapers, statistical reports, government documents, court records, reports of associations, organizations and institutions, treatises and polemical writings, chronicles, saints' lives, charters, legal codes, maps, graphic material (e.g. photographs, posters, advertising images, paintings, prints, and illustrations), literary works and motion pictures. Some of these materials were not published at the time of their creation (e.g. letters), but have subsequently been published in a book. For example, The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger is a selection from birth control activist Margaret Sanger's letters and other unpublished papers, presented in chronological order, which contextual information provided by expert editors.

Here's an overview:


How Do I Find Primary Sources?

There are many ways to find digitized primary sources, both published and unpublished, starting with our Digital Collections guide:

You can find published primary sources by using library catalogs, research guides, and published bibliographies. You can also look at secondary literature on your topic to ascertain what sources other scholars have used in their research. Our Guide to Primary Source Reprints is another good place to look for published primary sources:

To find published primary sources in library catalogs, try these strategies:

-Search by date of publication to find sources that were published during the time period you're researching --you can also use this strategy in full-text digital collections such as ProQuest Historical Newspapers

-Use the library catalog advanced search option and include one or more of these Library of Congress Subject Heading form subdivisions as subject search terms:

  • Correspondence
  • Sources
  • Diaries
  • Personal narratives
  • Interviews
  • Speeches
  • Documents
  • Archives
  • Early works to 1800
  • Manuscripts

You can find unpublished primary sources in the University of Illinois Library in the library catalog and in the University Archives Holdings Database. You can find materials held by other archives and museums using ArchiveGrid (an inventory of archival finding aids), or using the "archival material" format in WorldCat. Microfilm facsimiles of primary source materials are also included in WorldCat and other library catalogs:

Shelf Browsing

In order to browse the shelves, you need to know the “classification number” for your topic. Once a new book is assigned subject headings, it is then “classified” according to the Dewey Decimal Classification. In Dewey, the first three numbers indicate the main subject, and additional numbers are added after a decimal point to narrow the subject. Books and journals on historical topics are usually classified in the 900s, although much of social history gets classified in the 300s, and film is classified in the 700s.

Once you have identified a few books on your topic by doing a subject search in the online catalog, you can browse the shelf under the same general number(s) to find related works. For example, if you know that the book Slaves on Screen, by Natalie Z. Davis, has the call number 791.43655 D29s, you could go to the Main Stacks to browse the shelves under the same Dewey number to find related material.

Because so much of the Library collection is now stored in a high density, off-site storage facility, it's no longer possible to browse the collection as completely as it once was. You can, however, do "virtual shelf browsing" using the Library Catalog: