How do I find primary source materials?

Primary sources provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation. They are created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented. Often these sources are created at the time when the events or conditions are occurring, but primary sources can also include autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories recorded later. Primary sources are characterized by their content, regardless of whether they are available in original format, in microfilm/microfiche, in digital format, or in published format.

To begin finding primary source documents, consider these main resource areas available through Penrose Library:

1) Digital Primary Source Collections

Penrose subscribes to a number of archival and primary source collections that have been digitized.  To view the list of collections, start on the library’s homepage and click on the Databases tab.  From this tab, choose Databases by Subject.  Choose the Archival Resources category to see the complete list of resources.  These collections contain letters, diaries, pamphlets and other historical material for a wide range of subject areas.

2) Historical Newspapers

In addition to digitized archival materials, Penrose also has a large collection of digitized newspapers. Newspaper articles published at the time of a certain event can be considered primary source materials.  To see our collection of historical newspapers, click on the Databases tab on the library’s homepage, choose Databases by Subject and then Newspapers (Historical).

3) Library Catalog

Primary sources can also be found in books and edited volumes, such as a collection of letters. To find books that contain primary sources, search the Library Catalog (Books, Journals, & More tab). When performing a keyword search for your topic, try adding one of the words below to find primary source materials.

  • diaries
  • correspondence
  • interviews
  • manuscripts
  • oratory
  • pamphlets
  • personal narratives
  • sources
  • speeches
  • letters
  • documents
  • autobiography

4) DU Special Collections and Archives

The Special Collections department in Penrose Library contains the rare book and manuscript collection and University Archives.  Some of the materials are available online and other materials can be viewed by appointment in the Archives.  The University Archives is especially helpful for students working on projects related to DU and the Denver area.

In addition to using the resources of the library, think about who is likely to have sources pertaining to your topic. Is it a topic of particular relevance to a geographical area? Look for state and regional historical societies online. If you’re able to travel to the site, you can do a lot of preliminary research ahead of time, so that your time in that library or society is well-used.

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