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HIST 410: Environmental History of the United States

An introduction to conducting primary and secondary source research into the environmental history of the United States

Finding Primary Sources at the Library!


To find primary sources at CMU (or Prospector or Worldcat libraries) you can add the word sources to your search.

For example:  labor unions and women and sources

You can also add "type" words to your search, for primary sources of different types. 

For example: suffrage movement and personal narratives.  

Words that describe primary source types include:

  • diary, diaries
  • letters
  • correspondence
  • papers
  • documents
  • documentary
  • memoirs
  • personal narratives
  • speeches
  • sources

Online archival research tips

  • Most archival materials are not digitized and online
  • Often archives include collection guides (also called finding aids) that describe a collection of items (photographs, syllabi, reports, letters, etc.), but nothing from that collection has been digitized
  • You can email or call the archives staff to double-check - sometimes the items have been digitized but not made available on their website
  • Be flexible with your search terms (also called keywords) - often a single word is better than a phrase (more than one word) to start a search
  • Google might help you find archives or collection guides, but you probably won't easily find digitized items from archival collections
  • Context is important to understand primary sources - often what you find in Google images is removed from its context (where it came from, who made the original, why they made it)
  • Archivists love context - (who, what, where, why, when) and make sure to provide as much as they can
  • You can ask archival staff to digitize something in a collection - but understand that they might say they don't have time or that it will cost money
  • Some digitized archival items can be easily downloaded as high-resolution digital files - others may require you to contact the archives staff and request a high-resolution digital file directly (this is typically determined based on the copyright status of the item)

Primary sources at Tomlinson Library

Primary Source Collections in the Wild Web

How to find primary sources online

The tools you use to find primary sources will be individual to your topic. You can ask questions like where, when, why, how to brainstorm digital collections that may exist for your topic. Keep these especially in mind:

  • Is your topic associated with a particular place (state, house, university, town, etc.)? Does that place have an archive or history museum?
    • An example is the Sierra Club archives, which are held at the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley because the Sierra Club's roots are in San Francisco, California.  
  • Is your topic a particular movement or ideology? Does that movement have a digital collection or museum? Is the movement associated with a place (state, university, town, etc.)? Does that place have an archive or history museum?
    • Take Quakerism as an example. Haverford College in Pennsylvania has an extensive digital collection of documents that document Quaker life and theology.
  • Do a quick Google or other web search for a person's name plus "papers" or "collection" or "archives." This can sometimes lead you to the institution that holds the materials, but beware that the materials might not be digitized and readily available to you.
  • If it's an organization or institution that you're researching to find more about the context of your subject's life, search for the name of the organization plus "records."

You can also use your secondary sources to get an idea of where primary sources might exist. Take a look at the references in the bibliography and see where the author(s) found their primary sources.

Want to know more?