Finding Historical Primary Sources

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About this Guide

A guide to finding primary sources in history at the UC Berkeley Libraries


Primary sources were either created during the time period being studied or were created at a later date by a participant in the events being studied (as in the case of memoirs).  They reflect the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer.  Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to what actually happened during an historical event or time period

A secondary source is a work that interprets or analyzes an historical event or phenomenon.  It is generally at least one step removed from the event is often based on primary sources.  Examples include:  scholarly or popular books and articles, reference books, and textbooks.

To find secondary sources in book form, search the library catalogs:   OskiCat or MELVYL  (about).  To find articles that are secondary sources, search an article database, such as America:  History and Life (US and Canada) or Historical Abstracts (world history).

Where are Primary Sources at UCB?

Primary sources may be physically located in any of a number of UC Berkeley Libraries or archival collections, or they may be available online.

Archives are collections of original unpublished, historical and contemporary material – in other words, primary sources.  Before you go to any archival collection on campus you can save time and effort if you first:

Please remember that not all primary sources are located in archives.  Search the library catalogs:   OskiCat or MELVYL  (about) and article databases and ask for assistance.

Primary sources on campus may be in their original format; examples might include:

Some primary sources have been reproduced in another format, for instance:

Online primary sources may be found via free web sites as well as via Library databases.

To Know Before You Search

Think about what types of primary sources might have been produced that would be relevant to your topic; think also about which persons or organizations might have produced materials. Some possible types of sources:

Books Photographs and images
Magazine and newspaper articles Cartoons and advertisements
Diaries and journals Movies, videos, DVDs
Memoirs and autobiographies Audio recordings
Interviews Public opinion polls
Letters Fiction
Speeches Research data and statistics
Documents produced by organizations Documents produced by government agencies, including congressional hearings and census records

Finding Background Information

Gather the information you have about your topic and consider what you still need to know before you start researching.  You can use this information in searching for primary sources.

Reference works and secondary sources can help you find background information on your topic.  You may find reference sources by:

The Bancroft Library - Overview

The Bancroft Library is one of the treasures of the campus, and one of the world's great libraries for the history of Bancroft Library interiorthe American West.

Some Bancroft materials are available online via Calisphere, which includes primary sources  from many California libraries and museums.

How to Use the Bancroft Library

1.  Be prepared! Read secondary sources and know something about your topic.

2.  Before you go:  Search OskiCat so you can bring call numbers with you. You can limit your OskiCat search to find materials at the Bancroft Library, instead of all campus libraries (choose "Bancroft Library" from the pulldown menu that says "Entire Collection."). Remember that there are primary sources in many other campus libraries as well.

Important:  if the item is in storage ("NRLF") and owned by The Bancroft Library, do not use the Request button in OskiCat.  Instead, use the Bancroft's online request form AT LEAST 72 hours in advance (they prefer a week.)

If you have 72 hours in advance, you can also use the online request form for materials not in storage; that will speed things up when you arrive. 

If the OskiCat record mentions a "finding aid" (an index) to a manuscript collection, you should use it to help you find what you need in the collection.  If the finding aid is online there will be a link from the OskiCat record, or you can search the Online Archive of California to find it. The finding aids that are not online are near the Registration desk at the Bancroft Library.

3.  Learn how to use the Bancroft Library. Read about Access (bring a quarter for lockers!) and Registration (bring two pieces of ID!). Remember to bring call numbers, titles, etc. with you. You will fill out a form to present to the Circulation Desk, and materials will be paged and brought to you.

4.     Read about the new camera policy ($10/day and no flash!) or about getting photocopies.

5.     Ask for assistance at The Bancroft Library's reference desk.

Read more

Searching Catalogs for Primary Sources

To find books, DVDs, government documents, maps,  manuscripts, and much more - everything except articles - use a library catalog.

Catalogs also list collections of manuscripts, correspondence, photographs, and records of organizations, but they do not list individual items in those collections.

OskiCat = most UC Berkeley libraries

MELVYL = all UC campus libraries, including all UC Berkeley libraries.  Use the Request button to borrow items from another UC campus.

What's the difference?  more details here


Searching Article Databases for Primary Sources

To find magazine, journal or newspaper articles: use an article database. Article databases allow you to search for articles by topic, author, etc. Some (not all) article databases link to the full text of articles.

Primary Source Databases (all), including newspaper databases.

Primary Source Databases in American History

Newspaper Databases (all time periods)

Look carefully at the description of each database. Note:

In some article databases you may click on the image button, which will either locate the full text of the article online, or allow you to search OskiCat to determine if the magazine or newspaper title is located on campus.

Online Archive of California & Calisphere

oac home page

Guides to over 20,000 collections housed in 200 libraries, archives, historical societies, special collections and museums across California are searchable at the  Online Archive of California (OAC). Collection guides, also known as finding aids, are descriptive guides to archival (primary source) collections. These collections may be physically located in archives or digitized on the web. The guides help users learn more about the scope of a collection so they know if it is likely to meet their research needs.

calisphere home page

Digitized versions of photographs, documents, newspapers, political cartoons, works of art, diaries, transcribed oral histories, and other cultural artifacts that are contributed by these California institutions to the OAC make up the content included in Calisphere.

Types of Primary Sources

Published and Manuscript:  books, memoirs, letters, interviews, autobiographies, diaries, records of organizations, manuscript collections, speeches, fiction

Articles - magazines, newspapers; newspapers by title, by city, by subject

Government Information etc. - records of government organizations, Congressional information, US Census, Public Opinion polls, Supreme Court cases

Images and Sound - photographs, images, audio recordings, videos and DVDs, cartoons, advertisements

Primary Sources - Published and Manuscript

Books from the time period you're writing about

Memoirs, letters, interviews, autobiographies, diaries

Example:  subject keywords:  japanese Americans interviews

Ask for assistance in locating bibliographies and other reference tools that may help you find other titles.

Records of or materials published by an organization

Manuscript collections


Fiction from a particular time period

Consult one of the following printed indexes:

to find titles of creative works; then check the library catalogs:   OskiCat or MELVYL  (about) to see if we own the title(s) you want.

Primary Sources - Articles

Magazine or journal article from the time period you're writing about:

Newspaper article from the time period you're writing about - for a specific event or date

Specific newspaper or magazine title (example: Chicago Defender)

Newspaper titles by city or by subject

Primary Sources - Government Information, Census and Polls

Records of government agencies

Congressional information

Lexis-Nexis Congressional includes:

United States Census

Public Opinion Polls

Supreme Court cases



Making of Modern Law: US Supreme Court Records and Briefs, 1832-1978

A fully searchable collection of briefs and other documents related to cases brought before the U.S. Supreme Court. It contains over 150,000 cases and 350,000 documents. Search results are linked to the actual full-text PDF documents.

 Oral arguments:

Primary Sources - Images and Sound

Photographs and Images

(example: world war 1939-1945 pictorial works)

Audio recordings

Video recordings/DVDs- nonfiction

Movies from a particular time period

Consult one of the following:



Find Primary Sources by Topic


Search the library catalogs:   OskiCat or MELVYL  (about) by keywords or official subject headings.  To find official subject headings:

You may also pair an appropriate subject heading with additional subject terms that identify materials as primary sources. Some of these terms are:

Note: these subject terms will not retrieve all possible primary sources but they are a good way to start.


Search article databases by keywords, or official subject terms/descriptors.

Find Primary Sources by Author/Organization

Name of an individual

Name of an organization

Finding Primary Sources by Title

Specific title

Finding Primary Sources by Date

Primary Sources Online - Overview

The texts of primary sources are available online in two different ways:

Comprehensive list of library databases of primary sources in US History

Selected list, US History

Historical newspaper and magazine articles US History

Selected list of library databases of primary sources in European history  Flag of the European Union

Historical newspaper and magazine articles, European history    Flag of the European Union

Primary Sources by country or continent     globe

Comprehensive list of library databases of primary sources worldwide.     globe


Primary Sources - US History - Selected

Databases marked UCB ONLY are available from public workstations in a UC Berkeley library, and remotely to currently enrolled students, faculty and staff. For remote access information, see Connecting from Off Campus.

To find articles, see below.

Primary Sources -US History - Articles - Selected

Databases marked UCB ONLY are available from public workstations in a UC Berkeley library, and remotely to currently enrolled students, faculty and staff. For remote access information, see Connecting from Off Campus.

Primary Sources - European - Selected

Databases marked UCB ONLY are available from public workstations in a UC Berkeley library, and remotely to currently enrolled students, faculty and staff. For remote access information, see Connecting from Off Campus.

For articles, see below.

Primary Sources - European - Articles - Selected

Databases marked UCB ONLY are available from public workstations in a UC Berkeley library, and remotely to currently enrolled students, faculty and staff. For remote access information, see Connecting from Off Campus.

Primary Sources - By Country/Area

African Studies

East Asian Studies

French Studies

German Studies

Italian Studies

Latin American Studies

Middle Eastern Studies

Slavic Studies

South Asian Studies

Spanish and Portuguese Studies







Help with your Research

Talk to a reference librarian at most campus libraries.  For history questions you might start with:

UCB undergraduates can sign up for a Research Advisory Service appointment during peak periods of the semester.

Go here to learn about other ways to get assistance with your research, including 24/7 chat reference, e-mail reference, and contacting subject specialists.

Related Subject Guides

Related Course Guides

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