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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Library Research for Undergraduate History Students: An Introduction

A general guide to using the library for historical research.

What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are produced at the time of the event or phenomenon you are investigating, and they purport to document it. They reflect what someone observed or believed about an event at the time it occurred or soon afterwards. These sources provide raw material that you will analyze and interpret. Primary sources can be published or unpublished. 

There are different types of primary sources for different historical periods. For example, church documents and saints' lives serve as primary sources for the study of medieval history, while newspapers, government reports, and photographs serve as primary sources for the modern period. Moreover, what constitutes a primary source depends in part on how you have formulated your research topic. An article in an academic journal from 1984 could be a secondary source because it is part of an ongoing scholarly analysis of your topic, or it could be primary source because it provides evidence of attitudes and opinions held by people in 1984. In other words, there is no intrinsic or distinguishing feature of a text that makes it a primary, rather than a secondary, source. In fact, many sources, whether visual or textual, can serve as either primary or secondary sources. The key is how you use the material. In order to determine whether a source might be primary or secondary for your purposes, you must consider it in relation to your particular topic.

Published vs Unpublished Primary Sources

Unpublished primary sources are original documents and artifacts of all kinds that were created by individuals but not published (that is, made public --issued in a format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 Large research libraries like the UIUC Library have extensive collections of microfilm and digital facsimiles of unpublished primary sources.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:


If you're having trouble finding primary sources for a topic you've already started researching, go back to your secondary literature: what sources have other scholars consulted?  These should be cited in the footnotes or endnotes and/or described in an essay in the back of the book.

If you haven't decided on your topic yet, browsing the primary source collections described in the Digital Collections Guide can be a good way to find inspiration. Find a source that interests you, whether it's something you're surprised by, something that doesn't make sense, or just something you'd like to know more about.

If you have time, one of the best guides to conducting serious library research is the Oxford Guide to Library Research:

Don't forget that you can Ask a Librarian for assistance at any stage of your research, or, for more in depth assistance, Schedule a Research Consultation with a subject specialist librarian:

Learn More About Primary Sources

Primary Source Village. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois, 2006.

Williams, Robert C. "Sources and Evidence." The Historian's Toolbox: A Student's Guide to the Theory and Craft of History. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2003.

Booth, Wayne C., Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams. "From Problems to Sources." The Craft of Research. 3d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.