MU Libraries

History: Primary Sources: Home

What's a Primary Source?

A primary source is any record contemporary to an event or time period.  Primary sources may be written, oral, visual or physical.  Some of these sources were produced with the intent of being preserved for the future.  Such intentional sources include government documents, church records, autobiographies or memoirs.  On the other hand, many primary sources were produced without any intent of future use.  Such unintentional sources may include private correspondence not originally meant for posterity but which later are deposited in archives and libraries.  Physical evidence such as buildings, clothing, tools, and landscapes may also be labeled as unintentional sources.

--Galgano, Michael J., J. Christopher Arndt, and Raymond M. Hyser. Doing History: Research and Writing in the Digital Age. Cengage Learning, 2007, p. 57.

Physical Locations of Primary Sources at and Near MU

State Historical Society reading room, courtesy of State Historical SocietyPrimary sources are often found in archives and special collections (either separate, special libraries or special-collections sections of larger libraries).  Some of these locations make parts of their collections available online.

Finding Primary Sources in the MERLIN Catalog

key source for 17th c British history.  Photo by pobrecito33 (Flickr)There are certain words that appear in the subject headings of items in MERLIN that constitute primary sources.  The most important of them is sources, but there are others.

In the simple keyword search box, you can put such words after SU: in order to specify the SUBJECT field.

ex.: crusades and SU:sources

In the advanced keyword search, you can put your search term(s) in the top box, and in the second box, put the word(s) you're using to locate primary sources in the next box, and change the drop-down menu to Subject:

Keywords that will help you find primary sources:

  • sources
  • correspondence
  • sermons
  • diaries
  • personal narratives
  • interviews
  • quotations
  • collections
  • speeches
  • manuscripts
  • archives
  • conduct manuals

Depending on the period being studied, it can also be helpful to limit your search by publication date.

More keywords identifying primary sources in Library of Congress Subject Headings

To find the papers of a historically prominent individual, use the Advanced MERLIN Search.  Use the first line to specify the author (surname first, e.g., Jefferson, Thomas) and the second line to specify papers in the title.  You can also use the Advanced search to combine any of the above primary source oriented keywords with a particular author.

Google Books

Tips for Using Google Books for Primary Sources

  • Using the Advanced Search, you can search for words within a book, or all books by an author, or all books in Google's database
  • If books are old enough, you are often able to download them in their entirety from Google Books.  
  • There is usually a Find In a Library link for books not available for download.