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Advanced Primary Source Search Strategies

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

Mine the bibliography

Make sure to check the bibliographies of secondary sources on your topic to see which primary sources they consulted and where they can be found.

It's been found that some historians cite the physical copy of a primary source even if they viewed the primary source online, so be sure to check the website or digital library of the holding institution to see if the primary source in question has been digitized. It may have also been digitized since the research was conducted. You can also reach out to their staff to inquire about the primary source.

How to identify published primary source compilations

Published compilations of primary sources tend to use common terms or phrases in the title or subtitle

  • documents
  • sources
  • primary sources
  • letters
  • maps

In a library catalog like the one at Tomlinson Library, books will have subject headings that indicate the presence of primary sources


Some publications are primary sources in their entirety. This is determined by the kind of research you're conducting, the proximity to the subject being researched (both in terms of who created the source and when it was created), and if the source provides relevant context for your research. Examples include

  • Books of poetry
  • Memoirs
  • Autobiographies
  • Novels
  • Scientific treatises
  • Essays