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English 102: College Writing (Prof. Oehling): Finding Primary Sources

What Is a Primary Source?

When doing historical research, it is important to distinguish between primary and secondary sources:

"Primary sources provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation. They are created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented. Often these sources are created at the time when the events or conditions are occurring, but primary sources can also include autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories recorded later. Primary sources are characterized by their content, regardless of whether they are available in original format, in microfilm/microfiche, in digital format, or in published format." (What Are Primary Sources? Yale University)

Secondary sources are written by someone who was not present during the event or condition under discussion. Authors of secondary sources use primary sources or other secondary sources to gather their information.


Not every one of the above materials is always a primary source; each item must be considered individually.

Search for Books, Media, & More @ UWW

Use this box to quickly search Research@UWW for books, media, and more at UW-Whitewater. You can add keywords that describe the type of primary source you want in the search box to help limit to primary sources. E.g., cabaret* AND german* AND "personal narratives"

Select Primary Source Databases

The following databases are useful for finding primary source materials in history. However, some of the material is secondary, not primary, so evaluate carefully before using.


The Web can be an excellent resource for primary historical information. Photographs, maps, scanned images of original documents, reprints of diaries and letters . . . these materials and much more may be found on library, university, and government web sites. Some sites are specific to a certain event or era, while others provide more wide-ranging historical documents. Not all materials on these sites are primary, so evaluate them carefully. Information taken from the Web must be credited when used for research purposes, even if the material is considered to be in the public domain. Examples of such websites are: