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HIS-270 The Historian's Craft

Research guide for the Historian's Craft




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A Step-by-Step Guide to Primary Source Research

Primary sources are as numerous as they are diverse!  This table of content details the organization of this page.  You can either browse the entire page, or simply select the section that you'd like to explore.

  1. Step 1: Strategize!
  2. Primary Sources in Books
  3. Newspapers
  4. Government Publications and Genealogy
  5. Archival Materials at Salve
  6. Digital Collections and Additional Web Resources

Step 1: Strategize!

Before you begin your search for primary sources, spend some time brainstorming what type of primary sources you need for your research.  The type of primary source you need will determine where and what tools you need to find it.  Consider some of the following options...

Letters, memoirs, and journals: Look for books using a library catalog; OR look for personal papers, most likely in an archive under "Personal papers."

Newspapers and magazines: Access indexes and databases from a library; OR individual articles from an archive; OR digital articles through an online newspaper or magazine website.

Films: Use catalogs or finding aids from libraries, archives, or even websites.

Census data: Visit libraries and/or historical societies.  You may also be able to locate some data through the U.S. Census website.  

Once you've determined what you need, create a research plan.  Many libraries and archives have online catalogs that you can search, but sometimes they are located in a separate section of the website.  Look for "Archives," "Special Collections, "Rare Collections," or "Distinctive Collections" on the home page of the organization.

Make sure to think broadly of the types of terms you should use when searching.  Keep in mind that our current language and vocabulary doesn't always match that of the past (e.g. if looking for newspaper articles on African American history, you may need to also search "black" and/or "negro").  Create a list of all the terms you need to consider for your research.

Primary Sources in Books

Accounts written by individuals who lived through particular events and described what they witnessed or experienced are important primary source resources for historical research. These sources include memoirs, journals, diaries, and letters.

Many catalogs (including Salve's!) use standardized terms to describe these kinds of materials, making it easier for researchers to locate them.

Below are some common terms used for this type of resource and some example searches.  Note that you can limit the results to Salve holdings by using the left tool bar. To find your own: search the catalog using these terms with your topics. For example, personal narratives and civil war. You can also use one of the searches below and simply add "and your topic."

Another category of primary sources that you may want to consider is artwork.  Posters, political cartoons, and other artistic renderings can often provide unique insights and perspectives.  Use these sample searches to find posters, cartoons, and more.


To find newspaper articles, think about the time frame you're researching, the geographic location, or even the topic. For example: African Americans during the late 1800s or anti-war protests during the Vietnam War. Larger newspapers are more likely to have indexes. For smaller papers, check libraries in the geographic area.

Sometimes, you can just browse newspapers around particular dates or events. If you're searching for a topic in a newspaper, you'll need to use an appropriate newspaper index to find citations to relevant articles. Below are a few examples.

Government Publications and Genealogy

If you need access to government publications or genealogical resources, try the following databases.

Archival Materials at Salve

For a full guide to navigating the university's archives and special collections, check out the research guide below.

Digital Collections and Additional Web Resources

While you will likely find a variety of useful resources for your research through the library's collections and databases, there are also many web resources that may help you.  This list is not comprehensive, as research needs will vary greatly based on topic, but it should give you a good start to finding reliable sources online.


This page has been adapted from Amanda Izenstark's libguide HIS 401 & 495, Prof. Honhart at the University of Rhode Island University Libraries (