Finding Primary Sources on the Web

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Browse these guides of suggested online primary source collections on the open Web. More guides to come.

Web Searching Tips

Search for your topic by keyword/subject or by the title of a specific primary source

Use Keywords

When you don’t have a specific primary source in mind, for search terms use your subject plus "primary sources."


world war I soldiers primary sources

Use Primary Source Title

Identify a specific primary source title from reading a secondary source (i.e., book, article, encyclopedia, etc.), and enter that title in quotes in the search box.


“A soldier recalls the Trail of Tears”

TIP: For a famous primary source – i.e., the Declaration of Independence – in the search box, include quotation marks around the title and include the word text or transcript.  

Example:  “Declaration of Independence” text

Finding Images on the Web

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View of the Arctic Sea, Franklin Expedition, 1821, Libraries and Archives CanadaAn Internet search on just about any topic will bring up hundreds or thousands of images, but the challenge is finding one from a reputable source that you can use and cite confidently in an assignment or paper. Images from a government, library, museum, or university website are often more reputable sources than those on a commercial or personal website. Here are some good places to start:

Using Images Ethically

Portrait of unidentified African-American man with beard, Library of Congress
Consider copyright:  Using images for academic assignments is usually considered “fair use”. However, if you put the image in a public location, such as a class website without password protection, a published paper or book, or use it in a performance outside the classroom, you should consider possible copyright restrictions. Ask your instructor about copyright if you need to use an image in a public location.

Give credit:  Be sure to give credit by including as much information about the image as you can find: title, photographer or artist, date of creation, collection name (if applicable), etc. Ask your instructor about which citation style to use.

Image of the handwritten articles of incorporation for the  American Red Cross, 1881, Clara Barton Papers, Library of   Congress


Public Domain, Copyright-free, and Creative Commons images

Images in the public domain are ones that can be used by anyone for any purpose; no one owns the copyright. Determining whether an item is in the public domain can be challenging though. In general, works published or registered in the United States prior to 1923, along with items produced by the US government, are considered to be in the public domain. For more see:

Always read the website sections on copyright and image descriptions to try to determine if an image is in the public domain, can be used with attribution (a citation), or requires written permission for use. Some images and other items are now covered under Creative Commons licensing that will tell you how you may use the image.

Here are some additional places you might try searching for public domain images and others you might use under some conditions:

Finding Primary Sources in Libraries, Museums, and Archives

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While some primary sources are available on the “open” Web (no password required to access the site), some primary sources are available only on password-protected sites or have not yet been made digital and are only accessible physically in libraries, museums, or archives. This site will not go into depth on finding primary sources off-line or in subscription databases, but just be aware other pathways exist for finding primary sources.

Picture of book conservation craftsmanship, books, book presses, conservation tools, Library  Company of Philadelphia


Some primary sources are gathered together into books and are available in libraries. Titles of these books often include the word “sources” or “documents,” and you would find these books by searching a library’s catalog. Some primary sources are also offered in a library’s online database collection, which must be accessed through a library’s website and usually require the user to be a student, faculty member, or authorized guest.


Picture of Ottoman weapons, scythes, scimitars, guns, swords, axes,  Abdul Hamid II Collection, Library of Congress

Museums and Archives

Many primary sources have not yet been, or may never be, digitized and made available online, so you would need to visit an archive or museum to see the item. One way to try to locate materials in archives is through WorldCat. Click Advanced Search, and next to Format, select "Archival material" from the drop-down menu.





Image Credits and Sources

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Back, George, and Edward Francis Finden. Vue Sur L’océan Arctique, de L’embouchure de La Rivière Coppermine, à Minuit, Le 20 Juillet 1821 / View of the Arctic Sea from the Mouth of the Coppermine River, at Midnight, on July 20, 1821, 1823. W.H. Coverdale collection, Manoir Richelieu collection. Library and Archives Canada, C-041288k. Accessed September 3, 2015.

Washington, Augustus. [Unidentified Man with Beard, Half-Length Portrait, Full Face]. Photography (sixth plate daguerreotype), 1860 - 1854. American Colonization Society Records, 1792-1964 (Library of Congress). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Accessed September 3, 2015.

Barton, Clara. “Page 3 of Clara Barton Papers: Red Cross File, 1863-1957; American National Red Cross, 1878-1957; Incorporation; Articles of Incorporation, 1881.” Manuscript/mixed material, 1881. Red Cross File, 1863-1957 MSS11973, box: 94; Microfilm reel: 73. Clara Barton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Accessed September 3, 2015.

Examples of Craftsmanship of the Library Company of Philadelphia McLean Conservation Department. Photography, n.d. Library Company of Philadelphia, Media Resources:Image Bank.

Ottoman Weapons and Armor. Photographic print, 1893-1880. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Abdul Hamid II Collection, LOT 11910, no. 33.