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Consult secondary sources for key facts & primary document leads

Doing some background reading in a secondary source can often help you gather details about an  issue (key dates, places, people and events) to inform your understanding of the topic, improve your primary source search vocabulary, and also provide you with ideas for relevant primary sources you might pursue.

  • Example - Specialized encyclopedia: Consult a high quality reference work (also known as an encyclopedia or tertiary source). Keep searches simple, usually 1 or 2 search terms works best. 

Types of Primary Sources

Some examples from major events in U.S. History


Boston Tea Party/Revolutionary War

1. Official documents (e.g., laws, government and legal records):  The Tea Act

2. Newspapers and other published works: To the Commissioners Appointed by the East India Company, Oct 14, 1773

3. Personal accounts of participants or observers (e.g., letters, diaries, published narratives and memoirs, ): A retrospect of the Boston Tea-Party : with a memoir of George R.T. Hewes, a survivor of the little band of patriots who drowned the tea in Boston Harbour in 1773


Slavery & Anti-Slavery

4. Speeches/public addresses: An address delivered before the old colony Anti-Slavery Society, July 4, 1839

5. Propaganda: Circular Announcement - Great Mass Anti-Slavery Convention, March 26 1852

6. Organizational documents/records: Five years' abstract of transactions of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, 1853

7. Advertisements/public announcements: A Runaway in Custody, Maryland Herald, Oct. 2, 1800


Where and How to Find Primary Sources

  • Primary Sources for US History tab of this research guide offers an excellent list of primary source collections.
  • Google:

    • Along with your topic words, include a term that might be used to describe an online primary source collection, such as: "primary sources," sources, documents, "primary documents"

    • Evaluate host websites carefully. Look for reputable academic or historical organizations with high quality facsimiles or transcriptions that are properly documented/cited. 


General Search Tips
  • Once inside a primary source collection, search using terms that would have been used in the historical period you are studying. For example: Boston Griffins Wharf vs. Boston Tea Party, Negro vs. African American.

  • Limit search results to a specific date range when you have the option to do so.

  • No idea where to start? Try a historical newspaper or government document collection - they will support most topics. 

MRU LibrarySearch - Primary and Secondary Sources

Use the MRU LibrarySearch tool to find information in all formats, including books, journal articles, and reference/background sources simultaneously. You will find both primary and secondary sources in LibrarySearch.

Search tips:

  • Use the sidebar options (e.g. limit results to only relevant subjects, or to preferred resource type, e.g., books)
  • Sign in for enhanced results, to save "pinned" favourites lists and search queries
  • Use the advanced search to search for important search terms in the subject or title fields on the drop-down menus.
  • For REFERENCE/BACKGROUND sources, refine search results by resource type > reference entries
  • For PRIMARY sources,
    • add the term sources to your other search terms, or add a term that describes a specific type of primary document (e.g., speeches, correspondence, diaries etc.). For example: American revolution sources
    • find NEWSPAPERS by adjusting resource type > newspapers search

Find journal articles in a history-specific database

Still looking for information or overwhelmed by LibrarySearch results? 

America History and Life is a database dedicated to journals related to North American history.

Try the Advanced Search, where you can:

  • Limit searches by the historical time period discussed in the articles
  • Search for terms in the title, subject or abstract of articles
  • Exclude book review results or results in languages you are unable to read
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