Primary Sources on the Web: Finding, Evaluating, Using

Finding Primary SourcesEvaluating Primary SourcesUsing Primary Sources

This brief guide is designed to help students and researchers find and evaluate primary sources available online. 

Keep in mind as you use this website, the Web is always changing and evolving. If you have questions, please consult your instructor or librarian.

Primary sources are the evidence of history, original records or objects created by participants or observers at the time historical events occurred or even well after events, as in memoirs and oral histories. Primary sources may include but are not limited to: letters, manuscripts, diaries, journals, newspapers, maps, speeches, interviews, documents produced by government agencies, photographs, audio or video recordings, born-digital items (e.g. emails), research data, and objects or artifacts (such as works of art or ancient roads, buildings, tools, and weapons). These sources serve as the raw materials historians use to interpret and analyze the past.

Additional Explanations and Examples of Primary Sources

To see if these books are in a library near you, click on the title to access WorldCat.

Benjamin, Jules R. A Student’s Guide to History. 12th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2013.

Brundage, Anthony. Going to the Sources: A Guide to Historical Research and Writing. 5th ed. Malden, MA and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.

Cullen, Jim. Essaying the Past: How to Read, Write, and Think about History. 2nd ed. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.

Kitchens, Joel D. Librarians, Historians, and New Opportunities for Discourse: A Guide for Clio’s Helpers. Santa Barbara, Calif: Libraries Unlimited, 2012.

Presnell, Jenny L. The Information-Literate Historian: A Guide to Research for History Students. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Rampolla, Mary Lynn. A Pocket Guide to Writing in History. 8th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015.

Salevouris, Michael J, and Conal Furay. The Methods and Skills of History: A Practical Guide. 4th ed. Chichester, UK: WIley-Blackwell, 2015.

Turabian, Kate L., Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams. A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations: Chicago Style for Students and Researchers. 8th ed. Chicago guides to writing, editing, and publishing. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Williams, Robert Chadwell. The Historian’s Toolbox: A Student’s Guide to the Theory and Craft of History. 3rd ed. Abingdon: Routledge, 2015.


Image Credits and Sources


Curtis, Edward S. Gathering Seeds--Coast Pomo, 1924. Edward S. Curtis Collection. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540. Accessed September 20, 2015.

Britton & Rey. Chinese Belle and Child, Chinatown, San Francisco. Postcard, n.d. Online Archive of California/California Historical Society. Accessed September 20, 2015.

Dunlap, Kate. “Overland Trails - Biographies.” Trails of Hope: Overland Diaries and Letters, 1846-1869. BYU Harold B. Lee Library Digital Collections. Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT 84602. Accessed September 20, 2015.



Written in 2015 by a sub-committee of the Instructional and Research Services Committee of the Reference and User Services History Section in the American Library Association.  Sub-committee members:
Shelley Arlen, University of Florida Smathers Libraries
Eileen M. Bentsen, Baylor University Libraries (Co-Chair)
Melissa F. Gonzalez, University of West Florida Libraries
Julie Higbee, University of North Georgia Libraries
Joel D. Kitchens, Texas A&M University Libraries
Olga Perkovic, McMaster University Library (Co-Chair)
Julienne L. Wood, Noel Memorial Library, LSU Shreveport 
Previous version, “Using Primary Sources on the Web” (updated Jan. 10, 2008) will be archived at until December 18, 2015.
Send comments regarding the content on this page to We regret we are unable to answer questions regarding finding, using, or copyright on primary sources; please ask your local librarian or teacher about any such questions.