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What is a Primary Source

"A primary source is a document or physical object which was written or created during the time under study. These sources were present during an experience or time period and offer an inside view of a particular event."  Link to more information

Resources for Finding Primary Sources

ProQuest Historical Newspapers 
Full-text New York Times from 1851- 2006  and Wall Street Journal from 1889 - 1992.

The Times (London) (1789 - 2003).  Major newspaper covering world events from a British perspective.   On Microfilm.  Located in Special Collections on the 4th floor, east, Ellis Library. 

Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature   
Ready Ref AI 3.R48  (behind Reference Desk, 1st floor, south, Ellis Library)
Covers entire 20th century & more.

Readers' Guide Retrospective 1890 -1982 online, covers popular magazines and journals of the time.

North American Women's Letters and Diaries has fulltext searchable letters and diaries by 632 North American women from colonial times to 1950.

American Periodical Series Online is a full-text collection of some 1000 magazines and journals published between 1741 and 1900. Titles include Benjamin Franklin’s General Magazine, the first American professional journals, and several consumer magazines still in publication, such as Vanity Fair, Harper’s Magazine, and Ladies’ Home Journal. The search interface allows you to search the complete text, including tables of contents. Articles are linked to the corresponding page images, allowing downloading and printing in PDF format.

America: History and Life
In-depth index to history articles and books in publication. Use Advanced Search to limit years covered in the content of the articles. Covers all aspects of U.S. and Canadian history, culture, and current affairs from prehistoric times to the present.

U.S. Government click this link for an extensive guide to primary source government documents.  Below are two especially good sources in this long list

Digital National Security Archive 

The Digital National Security Archive is a comprehensive collection of significant primary documents central to US foreign and military policy since 1945. The Archive is organized into dozens of topical collections, each containing government documents declassified under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Lexis Nexis Congressional      

A comprehensive collection of information by and about the United States Congress and the legislative process. It includes indexes to congressional publications (1789-date), a bill tracking service (1989-date), and extensive full-text, including the Congressional Record (1985-present), the Federal Register (1980-present), the Statutes at Large (1789-present), Congressional Research Service reports (1916-present) and Committee Prints (1830-present). It also includes biographical, financial and voting information on current members of Congress.

Library Catalog
You can find primary sources in the Library catalog by adding one or more of the following terms to your keyword search. The "s:" part forces MERLIN to look in a subject heading for these terms.

  • s:archives
  • s:correspondence
  • s:sources
  • s:diaries
  • s:interviews
  • s:personal narratives

Chronologies & Encyclopedias

(Key to call numbers Ref=Reference Collection, 1st floor, center, Ellis Library; Ready Ref=behind Reference Desk, 1st floor, south, Ellis Library)

American Decades    
Ready Ref. E169.12 .A419 1994 (10 volumes).  
One volume for each decade of the twentieth century.

St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture  
Ready Ref. E169.1 .S764.   (5 volumes).
Use this to look up 20th-century concepts.   Articles often include a short bibliography.

Encyclopedia of American Cultural and Intellectual History  
Ref. E169.1 .E624 2001 (3 vol.)

Encyclopedia of American Social History 
Ref. HN 57 .E58 1993   (3 volumes).   

CQ Researcher
Provides background information and analysis of controversial issues. Click on "Popular Databases" from MU Libraries' gateway page.

Encyclopedia of the Persian Gulf War
Ref UF 500 .G8 1995

Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War
Ref DS 557.7 .E53 1998

Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace and Conflict
Ref HM 291 .E625 1991

The United States and the First World War: An Encyclopedia
Ref D 510 .U65 1995

World War II: The Encyclopedia of the War Years, 1941-1945
Ref D 743.5 .P57 1996

Resources for Finding Articles

Academic Search Premier
Indexes over 8,000 magazines, journals, and newspapers, much full text.

America: History and Life
In-depth index to history articles and books in publication.   Use Advanced Search to limit years covered in the content of the articles. Covers all aspects of U.S. and Canadian history, culture, and current affairs from prehistoric times to the present.

Alternative Press Index  1991 - present.  Indexes over 250 alternative, radical and left periodicals, newspapers and magazines.

 For additional subject-specialty databases, consult a reference librarian, or the list of databases by subject. All the above databases are available via the list of databases by name.

Locating Articles and Books

Some databases provide the full text of some articles, but not all. If the full text is not provided, look up the journal title in the Library Catalog to see if we subscribe and get the call number, or check Find it At MU to see if full text is provided elsewhere.  If you can’t find what you need, please Ask a Librarian.    Use the Library Catalog to locate books in the MU Libraries.  Use the MOBIUS Catalog to request books from other academic libraries in Missouri.  Again, if you can’t find what you need, please Ask a Librarian.

Tips on Searching Databases and Online Catalogs

-Break your research question into essential key words and connect with AND,  e.g., "How was the CIA involved in the overthrow of Chilean president, Salvador Allende?"   becomes     CIA AND Chile AND Allende

-Brainstorm synonyms to use and connect with OR, e.g., "womens liberation" OR "womens lib" OR "womens movement"    Don't get stuck on one term when there may be several ways to express it.

-Use "Advanced Search"    -Put quotes around a phrase, e.g., "energy crisis"   "agent orange"  "black panther party"

-For research articles, limit your search to "Academic Journals" or "Scholarly (Peer Reviewed) Journals"

-Use wild card/ truncation symbol (*) to get plurals and variant endings, e.g., vietnam* (also finds vietnam's, vietnamese)

-Limit your search to the abstract to increase the likelihood of relevancy.

-When you find a good article, always look at the references listed at the end.  Often one good article can lead you to other similar articles, and help identify authors and classic works on your topic that you wouldn't want to leave out.

 -If you're looking at the references and want to follow-up by finding an item that seems useful, first determine if it's a book or an article.  Go to the MU Libraries' gateway page and from the "I need to . . ." box on the left, click on either Find a Specific Article  or  Find a Specific Book .  Fill in the form with the information you have and click on  FInd it @MU to see your options.

-For items that are neither books nor articles, for example, a research report from an organization or government agency, or a conference paper, Google Scholar or Google Books may be useful to locate the item.

To find primary sources in library catalogs, look for the following words in the subject headings: correspondence, diaries, personal narratives, sources.

Subject Guide

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Paula Roper
167 Ellis Library
University of Missouri
Columbia, MO 65201


Joseph Chevalier