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How Do I Find Primary Sources?

A general guide on finding primary sources for research

Finding Background Information

Gather information you have about your topic and consider what you still need to know before you start researching. You can use what you already know to search for primary sources. For example, are there specific

  • dates,
  • places,
  • people,
  • organizations


Reference works, or background information can help you get started in your topic. If you need help finding reference sources, ask a librarian!

Determine the Type of Source You Need

Think about what types of primary sources might be relevant to your topic. Sometimes, when searching for sources it is helpful to include the source type in your keywords! Possible types of sources include:

Examples of primary source types
Books Photographs or images
Magazine or newspaper articles Cartoons or advertisements
Diaries or letters Films or television
Memoirs or autobiographies Research data or statistics
Audio recordings Documents created by organizations or government agencies


A keyword is a term you use to search that expresses what you hope to find. When you search for information, you will be most effective when you use multiple keywords and combine them in multiple ways. For example, you can connect your topic with a date, place, or item type.

Say I am interested in researching the punk rock movement in the seventies. Some of the searches I might try include:

  • punk rock AND 1970s (finds materials related to the punk rock movement in the 1970s) or...
  • seventies punk (finds materials about punk in the 1970s)
  • punk documentary (finds a film about punk movements)
  • punk music (finds information about songs or artists I might use to continue my research)

Don't be scared to try many different searches and words! For example, when searching for African American, try keywords like Black, Afro-American, or Negro (as a historically used term) or for Fashion, try keywords like Style or Clothing. By trying many different terms and combinations, you'll be casting a wider net to find the most accurate information.