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Primary sources

Primary sources are first-hand accounts of an event or discovery. Primary sources were either created during the time period being studied or were created at a later date by a participant in the events being studied (as in the case of memoirs). Primary sources include autobiographies; letters; emails; diaries; speeches; interviews; laws; treaties; raw data that has been collected; works of literature, art, or music; and newspaper accounts of events by an eye-witness. You should know the name or people or organizations, the dates, and the places involved in your research topic before attempting to find primary sources.

Secondary sources are summaries, interpretations, or analyses of another's work. Determining whether a work is a primary or secondary source is not clear cut. An author's recent work of fiction may be a primary source to a researcher studying the writing style of that author. The author's notes and letters used in the writing of that work may instead be a primary source to another researcher. Bibliographies of secondary sources can provide many primary sources.

Tertiary sources contain information which is a distillation and collection of primary and secondary sources. Tertiary sources include almanacs, chronologies, dictionaries and encyclopedias, directories, fact books, guidebooks, indexes, abstracts, manuals, and textbooks.

Special Collections in Newman Library holds many primary source documents on the history of Virginia Tech, the Civil War, Appalachian and local history, culinary history, women in architecture, and other fields. See also our Manuscripts guide.

Because the definition of primary sources is somewhat fluid and can vary among disciplines, consult your instructor for guidelines on what to consider a primary source when researching an assignment.

Addison, the Virginia Tech catalog 

Use the Subject search screen and search the headings listed below for books containing primary source material.

  • American diaries
  • American letters
  • Archives
  • Autobiography
  • Blogs
  • Diaries
  • History sources
  • Interviews
  • Letters
  • Memoirs
  • Oral history
  • Public records
  • Slave writings
  • Speeches, addresses, etc.
  • Wills

Use the advanced search screen and include a limit by Subject for the subheadings listed below. Include your research topic for narrower results.

  • archives
  • bibliographies
  • case studies
  • correspondence
  • diaries
  • documentary photograph
  • early works to 1800 [great for finding reprints of older material that limiting by publication date will not find]
  • interviews
  • manuscripts
  • notebooks
  • pamphlets
  • portraits
  • personal narratives
  • records
  • sources
  • statistics

Primary source databases 

Databases that contain full text of primary sources are listed below. (Many other databases will contain citations or summaries of primary sources which may then be located using Addison or another source.) Be aware of the coverage dates for each listed database and choose databases that index records contemporary to your event or person.

Catalogs (about publications)
Catalogs and browsable archives of historical documents, includng many open access archives.
Narratives, diaries and letters databases
Personal narratives, diaries, letters, speeches, memoirs, autobiographies, and other personal correspondences, including indexes, full-text documents, and audio recordings. Check the listed date range covered by each database.
Newspapers and magazines databases
Indexes and full-text articles from newspapers and popular magazines. Check the listed date range covered by each database.
Statistics and data sets databases
Compiled statistics and collections of survey instruments and raw data, GIS data and reports, census data, and public opinion polls.

General interest databases 

Many general interest databases will contain citations to or full text of primary sources. While journal articles are not always considered primary sources, their bibliographies can contain citations to such sources.

ABI/Inform from ProQuest
1971-present. While ABI/Inform concentrates on business topics, many other disciplines are included.
Academic Search Complete from EBSCOhost
1980s-present. Includes both scholarly journals as well as magazine and newspaper articles.
Web of Science citation indexes
A citation database with multidisciplinary coverage of over 10,000 high-impact journals in the sciences, social sciences, and arts and humanities, as well as international proceedings coverage for over 120,000 conferences.

Subject specific databases 

Primary sources can be found (or at least cited) in subject specific databases found through the Subject Guides. Scholarly (peer-reviewed) articles are sometimes considered primary sources and many databases provide means to limit to peer reviewed articles. Bibliographies can list primary sources and listings should be studies carefully.


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