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Advanced Primary Source Search Strategies

Guide for students seeking out primary sources, especially for historical research.

Online search strategies

  • Different browsers (Google, Bing, Firefox, DuckDuckGo, Start Page, Yahoo, etc.) will give you different results because of their algorithms
  • If you're concerned about the privacy of your search, try Incognito Mode in any browser or use DuckDuckGo or Start Page
  • If you use a non-private browser without Incognito Mode, your future search results may be impacted by your research terms

Brainstorm keywords and phrases in advance. You can use Wikipedia, an encyclopedia, books, articles, etc. to help you think of as wide a variety of search terms as possible. You also want to combine the terms in different ways in your searches. Quotation marks will keep the words of a phrase together in the search and help with precision in the results.

Who? What? When? Where? Other
Benjamin Franklin American Revolution; American War for Independence; Poor Richard's Almanac 1700-1800; 18th century France; Philadelphia; American colonies letters; publications; diaries
Mao Zedong; Chairman Mao; Mao Tse-Tung Chinese Communist Party; Chinese Cultural Revolution 20th century; 1949-1976 People's Republic of China; China writings; photographs; correspondence
Malcolm X; Malcolm Little; el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz racism; Black nationalism; Nation of Islam; Muslim Mosque, Inc. 20th century United States; Mecca; New York City videos; oral histories; papers
  • Try synonyms and variants
  • How have terms changed over time?
  • Keep searching over and over again with different search terms - research takes time and effort
  • Go beyond the first page of results
  • Offensive terms - you need to be prepared to use them in the search or at least to see them in the sources you find

If you want to locate groupings of primary sources around a topic or theme, try using search terms like these

collection "digital library" "teacher's kit" "lesson plans"
"digital exhibit" "digital collection" exhibition archive

If you want a shortcut to finding primary sources on a topic, you can also try looking for course or subject guides created by librarians at other colleges and universities. The system used to create course guides is called LibGuides, so if you add that to a search, you might find some guides with great information.

Example: Nazi propaganda "primary sources" LibGuide

*Other universities may be subscribed to primary source databases that they're paying for so their students have access, but you wouldn't be able to access the content. If you see a lock next to an link on a guide, that's an indication that it's only available to members of their campus community.

Evaluating online primary sources

Questions to ask when you think you've located a primary source online

  • Where is it? Ideally, you want to use the websites of trusted repositories.
    • Is the website for a cultural heritage institution? (library, archive, museum, historic property, historical society, etc.)
    • Is the website for an educational institution or a government agency?
    • If you found it on an aggregator site (Digital Public Library of America, Europeana, World Digital Library), where is the physical item located?
    • Some rare materials dealers post high-quality digital versions of their products online to entice buyers. You can potentially use these, but you need additional verification that they are genuine.
  • Have you found an individual item (photograph, letter, oral history) or a collection (papers, correspondence, records)?
    • If you've found an item, does it link to a larger collection to which it belongs? If so, do other items in the collection look useful to your research?
    • If you've found a collection, do individual items look relevant to your research?
  • Is the item actually a primary source? This will depend on your research.
  • Can you access the item online? (If not, please consult this page for advice.)
    • See it, read it, hear it, watch it?
    • If it's handwritten, can you read it or will you need assistance?
    • Is it in a language you understand?
  • Is there information about the item (metadata) available?
    • Title, creator, date, subjects, description, etc.
    • Credible metadata from trusted repositories gives some assurance that the item is genuine and correctly identified
    • It helps you understand the source and helps you cite it in your research
    • If you have any questions about the accuracy of the metadata, please contact the archivist, librarian, curator, etc. We all make mistakes.