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I am looking for primary sources

A primary source is an item that was created during the period being studied and documents in some way what is being studied.

Examples of primary sources include:

  • Newspaper accounts
  • Letters, diaries and scrapbooks
  • Government documents (research data, statistics, congressional transcripts, laws, etc.)
  • Personal accounts, autobiographies, memoirs
  • Images and museum artifacts
  • Speeches
  • Data from scientific experiments
  • Oral histories


If you're looking for historical primary sources, here are three strategies that are worth trying first:

1.Use OneSearch. The library has primary source materials available in print, online, and in microfilm, most of which can be discovered using OneSearch. If you're looking for a specific item, just do a basic search with the title in quotes (for example, “Diary of Anne Frank”).

If you are looking for primary sources on a certain topic, you're going to need to do an advanced search with subject headings:

  • On the first line, enter keyword(s) that describe your topic (in the image below, it's the Spanish Civil War).

  • On the second line, use the drop-down arrow next to the search box to choose Subject  and select one of the subject headings in the list below that describe different kinds of primary sources. If there are multiple subject headings you want to use, put an OR between them (be sure to capitalize it). For example, you could search for "medieval" as a keyword and sources OR documents OR personal narratives as subject headings.

Subject Headings

  • To find any kind of primary source - Sources OR documents (examples: medieval sources, Civil War documents, papal sources)
  • Personal accounts, autobiographies, or memoirs -  Personal narratives OR autobiography OR memoir  (examples: Pearl Harbor personal narratives, Battle of the Bulge memoir, autobiography World War II)
  • Letters - Correspondence OR letters (examples: Civil War correspondence, French Revolution letters)
  • Diaries - Diary (examples: Civil War diary, woman diary France)
  • Oral history - Interview OR oral history OR speeches (examples: Cold War interview, Japanese internment oral history, Malcolm X speeches)
  • Pamphlet - Pamphlet (examples: pamphlet chastity, rights of women pamphlet)
  • Photographs or artwork - Pictorial works (examples: Chicago pictorial works, World's Fair pictorial works)

OneSearch primary sources search


Once you find one useful primary source in the catalog, take a look at the subject headings associated with it by scrolling down the page and looking for the Subject heading. All of the subjects you will see listed are live links and clicking on them will take you to a list of everything the library has on that subject.

2.  Search in Google Books - if your topic is pre-1923, there are likely a lot of primary sources available on your topic in the public domain. Google has digitized books from many of the world's major research libraries and is making all of the works in the public domain freely available in Google Books. You can search for a specific work or a general topic. The annoying thing about Google Books is that they also list resources that are only available to preview. If you use the Advanced Book Search, you can limit your search to full view only books.


Graphic of the advanced search box in Google Books


3.  Search in Library Databases: The Library has some major collections of primary source materials that might be useful to you. The SJSU Special Collections & Archives guide lists many databases available for specific subject areas.

These guides also provide subject-specific lists of primary source resources: