Skip to main content

History: Great Britain and Ireland: Primary Sources

A research guide to primary and secondary sources for British and Irish history.

What are Primary Documents?

Primary Documents were either created during the time period being studied or were created by a participant in the events at a later date, as in the case of memoirs.  Primary sources reflect the personal viewpoint of a participant or observer.  Primary sources enable a researcher to get as close as possible to what actually took place during a certain time period or an historical event.  A primary document might also be the specific text or material being studied, for example a work of fiction of a poem.

Types of Primary Documents:

  • Books
  • Photographs and images
  • Magazine and Newspaper Articles
  • Cartoons and Advertisements
  • Diaries and Journals
  • Movies, Videos, DVDs
  • Autobiographies
  • Interviews
  • Public Opinion Polls
  • Letters
  • Speeches
  • Research Data and Statistics
  • Documents produced by organizations
  • Documents produces by Government agencies, for example, congressional hearings and census records

Finding Primary Documents

  • Books from the time period you are researching:  Search the library catalog by topic and limit by date of publication.
  • Memoirs, letters, interviews, autobiographies, diaries: Search the library catalogs for the name of an individual as an author (last name, first).  If you do not have the name of an individual, search the catalog by subject and add the appropriate subject terms to the subject heading:  Correspondence, Diaries, Interviews, Personal narratives.  (For Example:  subject keywords might be:  japanese americans interviews).  Ask for assistance finding bibliographies and other reference tools that might help you find other materials.
  • Magazine or journal articles from the time period you are writing about:  Use an article database (such as Academic Search Premier, JSTOR, or Historical Abstracts) to find the citations (title, author, name of the periodical, date, volume, page numbers of relevant articles, or search to find the library location of the periodical title.  Our periodicals are housed downstairs, in our spacesaver shelving.
  • Newspaper articles from the time period you are researching-for a particular event or date:  Use a newspaper database to locate the citations (title, author, name of the newspaper, date, volume, page numbers) of relevant articles.  You can limit by time period, as well as by subject or keyword.  If you need to determine the dates of events before you search the newspaper database, use a reference material , secondary source or the New York Times Database.
  • Specific newspaper or magazine title:  Search Lexis-Nexis by magazine or newspaper title.
  • Records of or materials published by an organization:  Search library catalog, or WorldCat, by the name of the organization as author.
  • Records of government agencies: Search the library catalog, or Worldcat, by the name of the government agency as organizational author.
  • Speeches: Search the library catalog by names of authors.  Search the library catalog by subject keywords: -speeches indexes to find reference books that list individual speeches.
  • Photographs: Search the library catalog by the additional subject terms-photographs or -pictorial works. For example: world war 1939-1945 pictorial works.  Search library catalog by names of persons or topics as subject keywords.  Search an appropriate image database.
  • Cartoons:  To find books that discuss and reproduce cartoons from a specific time period, search library catalogs by subject and add the subject terms -caricatures and cartoons  For example:  -Spanish-American war caricatures and cartoons.  Search an article database that includes Historical Newspapers, such as the Historical New York Times database.
  • Identifying Primary Sources in your Library:  Pair the appropriate subject heading with additional subject terms to identify materials as primary sources.  Some of these terms are:  -correspondence, -diaries, -early works to 1800, -interviews, -pamphlets, -periodicals, -personal narratives, -sources. These subject terms will give you a good start on finding primary documents.  For example:  -student movements japan history sources or -france revolution correspondence

Major Websites

Images and Maps

Government Documents

Correspondence