Finding Primary Sources


Primary vs. Secondary Sources

In the humanities and some social sciences, a primary source is generally considered to be a document or object created in a particular time, providing contemporary accounts of events. Primary sources are original documents, giving first-hand perspectives of someone who experienced or witnessed the event being discussed.

Examples of primary sources in the humanities and select social sciences include: letters, diaries, autobiographies, newspaper or magazine articles, photographs, advertisements and cartoons, speeches, paintings, interviews, research data and statistics, public opinion polls, etc.

In the sciences, as well as some social sciences, primary sources are original articles or other texts describing a researcher's new experimental data, results, and/or theories. These primary articles usually contain an introduction, methods, and results section. However, some review articles (which are not primary sources) also contain these sections, so the reader should always review the article's content to assess. An article can appear in a scholarly peer-reviewed journal and not be a primary source (i.e. editorials, review articles, book reviews).

A secondary source is an interpretation or analysis of the document, object, or event, at a later date. Secondary sources comment on or review one or more primary sources. Secondary sources are at least one step removed from the primary source.

Examples of secondary sources in the humanities and some social sciences include: scholarly or popular books, journal article analyzing primary sources, documentary movies, etc. Examples of secondary sources in the sciences and some social sciences include newspaper articles summarizing an experiment and review articles summarizing many primary articles on the same subject.

Finding Primary Sources


Trexler Library has many primary sources in its collection. Search the Trexler Library catalog to find these items. Include keywords in your search that describe the topic or event you are researching, as well as words that might describe the type of primary source (e.g., interviews, correspondence, diaries, personal narratives, sources, speeches).

Trexler Library also provides access to some databases of primary source material.

  • 19th Century Masterfile provides citations to Anglo-American nineteenth century newspapers, periodicals, books, and goverment documents.
  • LexisNexis Academic provides full text of thousands of newspapers, magazines, broadcast transcripts, business publications, legal materials, and more.
  • The Pennsylvania Gazette is an Early American paper of record covering 1728-1800.
  • Social and Cultural History: Letters and Diaries Online helps you locate thousands of private writings, personal narratives, interviews and more of people from diverse ethnic and social groups from 1550 to the present.

See Databases A to Z and the Online Reference Shelf for more.

The Special Collections and Archives Department of Trexler Library is the repository for the College's collections of rare books, manuscripts, maps, and ephemera, as well as material relating to the College's history.


Libraries around the country have primary sources, as well. These items may be available to Muhlenberg College students, staff, and faculty via Interlibrary Loan. Use WorldCat to search for them. Include keywords in your search that describe the topic or event you are researching, as well as words that might describe the type of primary source (e.g., interviews, correspondence, diaries, personal narratives, sources, speeches).

Local historical collections (like the Lehigh County Historical Society) often collect primary documents originating in the area and make them accessible to students and scholars.


Many libraries, museums, historical societies, and other institutions provide digitized collections of primary sources on the web. Some noteworthy online collections and resources include:

American Memory (Library of Congress)
American Memory provides free and open access through the Internet to written and spoken words, sound recordings, still and moving images, prints, maps, and sheet music that document the American experience.

Avalon Project (Yale University)
Digital documents relevant to the fields of Law, History, Economics, Politics, Diplomacy and Government throughout history.

Pennsylvania Digital Library (University of Pittsburgh)
State-wide metadata repository for digital resources created by Pennsylvania libraries, museums, educational institutions, and other cultural heritage organizations.

Primary Sources on the Web (Cal State LA)
A listing of websites linking to primary source collections online.

Repositories of Primary Sources (University of Idaho)
A listing of over 5000 websites describing holdings of manuscripts, archives, rare books, historical photographs, and other primary sources for the research scholar.

State Digital Resources (Library of Congress)
A compilation of state and regional digital projects and collaborations.

Get More Help

Still can't find what you're looking for? Ask a Librarian.