Finding Primary Sources

What Are Primary Sources | Timeline of Information | Search Strategies | Primary Source Web Sites 

Strategies for Finding Primary Sources

Familiarizing Yourself with Background Information

  • Reference Source
    A first step you need to do to find primary materials is to familiarize yourself with the background information on your topic. Library reference collection is a great place to get started. These reference materials will give you a good overview of the topic, will outline the basic historical context, and will help you identify key issues, events, participants, dates, and even keywords needed for you to plan a more informed and efficient search.

    Examples of Reference Sources:
    • Specialized encyclopedias
      • Encyclopedia of of the American Civil War : a political, social, and military history
      • Latin America, history and culture : an encyclopedia for students
      • Encyclopedia of Asian History
    • Chronolgies
      • Chronology of World Hisotry: a Calendar of Principal Events from 3000 BC to AD 1976
      • The Timetables of History: a Horizontal Linkage of People and Events
    • Factbooks
      • Encyclopedia of American Facts and Dates
    • Biographical dictionaries and encyclopedias
      • Dictionary of World Biography
      • Current Biography (1940-present)
    • Specialized bibliographies and guides to research
      • Bibliographies in American History: Guide to Materials for Research
      • Sources of Information for Historical Research
      • A Reference Guide to Latin American history

  • Textbooks and Journal Articles
    Textbooks and journal articles (especially those with extensive bibliographies) and other secondary sources can provide you background informaiton and clues about the event, participants involved, as well as source of materials useful for your research.

    To search for journal articles, use appropriate databases listed in the database page from the Library Web (

    For general history topics, you can use the following online databases to find articles:
    • America: History & Life
    • Historical Abstracts
    • JSTOR
    • Project Muse
    • Humanities Abstracts
    • Academic Search Premier

Where to Find?
Primary sources may be in their original format or may have been reproducted at a later date in a different format. Library Catalogs, electronic databases, and the Web are tools can be used to find primary sources.

What to Find
Library Catalogs To find primary sources in the libraries, EXECPT ARTICLES, use the Library Catalog. Uisng the catalog, you can find primary source materials such as, addresses, correspondences, diaries, documents, eyewitnesses, interviews, maps, music scores, periodicals, personal narratives, photographs, speeches, and sound recording.      
Online Databases Some primary sources are digitized in subscription databases, such as Historical Los Angeles Times, and LexisNexis and Westlaw for legal cases, etc.

For primary sources on the Web, see the selective list of Primary Sources on the Web or search the Web using search engines.

For important advice on finding and evaluating primary sources on the Web, see Using Primary Sources on the Web from the History Section of the Reference and User Services Association, a division of the American Library Association.

Type of Primary Source

Where to Search
Books published from the time period you are researching Search the Library Catalog Advanced Search and limit by year of publication.
Addresses, autobiographies, correspondences, diaries, documents, evidence, events, eyewitnesses, interviews, letters, memoirs, oral history, pictorial works, personal narratives, sources, speeches, trascripts, etc. For this type of material, search the Library Catalog by topic (in most cases, names of events) and add the appropriate type of primary source. Use AND to link the topic and the source type:
  • diaries and dust bowl
  • personal narratives and Korean War
  • interviews and japanese americans

type of material + keyword(s) of your topic (event or person)

Newspaper articles, advertisements, cartoons etc. from the time period you're researching

For newspaper articles or other type of materials on newpapers:

Search electronic newspaper databases such as, Historical Los Angeles Times

If no electronic newspaper exists in the library for the event you are researching, use print newspaper index, such as, New York Times Index (REFERENCE North-1st; AI21 .N44 ) to locate the citations (title, author, date, volume, page naumber), then print the article from the newspaper on microfilm located on A Level, Library North.

Magazine articles from the time period you are researching

For magazine articles or other type of materials on magazines:

Use an article database, such as Readers Guide Retro (1890-1982) to locate either full text articles or citations (title, author, name of the magazine, date, volume, page number) of the relevant articles.

If you have the citation already, use Journal Name Search to determine whether the magazine is available at CSULA Library.

Records of government agencies

Search the Library Catalog Advanced Search using Subject/Keyword and limit Collection Type to Government Documents. For complete records of government agencies, go to Government Information Resources & Services page at

Fiction, stories and plays from a particular time period

Consult one of the following printed indexes in the library:

  • Fiction Catalog   Z5916 .W74

  • Short Story Index   PN6014 S56b

  • Play Index   Z5781.P53

Audio/Video Materials

Search the Library Catalog Advanced Search using Subject/Keyword and limit Collection Format to Videos, DVDs, or Sound Recordings.

Or Consult one of the following

Materials in other libraries

Open WorldCat provides catalog access to 110+ million holdings worldwide. Includes catalog records for books, journals, films, sound recordings, videos, etc. It is a good tool for you to find books in your local libraries or other libraries. Since many primary source materials are rare books hosted in library archives or special collections, these items cannot be borrowed through the interlibrary loan service. Open WorldCat helps you identify which library has a particular item, so you can plan to make a trip to a local library to use the item.

Adapted from UC Berkeley "Library Research: Finding Primary Sources"