Skip to Main Content

History: Searching for primary documents

Searching for primary sources in the library catalog

Use the following search terms, along with your topic terms, to locate primary sources:

  • charters
  • correspondence
  • diaries
  • early works
  • interviews
  • manuscripts
  • oratory
  • pamphlets
  • personal narratives
  • sources
  • speeches
  • letters
  • documents


Example LC Subject headings (linked to catalog):

Authors, American--20th century--Correspondence.
Presidents--United States--Correspondence.
Presidents' spouses--United States--Correspondence.
United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Sources.
United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Personal narratives.


Primary Source Databases

Accessible Archives - Diverse primary source materials reflecting broad views across American history and culture. Includes the following collections: African American Newspapers, Civil War Newspapers, Colonial Newspapers, County Histories, and more.

Ancestry Library Edition - Millions of names from sources such as federal and U.S. censuses as far back as 1790; birth, death, and marriage records including the Social Security Death Index; and U.S. border crossing and trans-ocean ship records.

Early American Imprints, Series I. (1639-1800)* - The definitive resource for every aspect of life in 17th- and 18th-century America, from agriculture and auctions through foreign affairs, diplomacy, literature, music, religion, the Revolutionary War, temperance, witchcraft, and just about any other topic imaginable. Includes books, pamphlets, poems, broadsides, and many other formats.

Early American Imprints, Series II. (1801-1819)* - 36,000 American books, pamphlets and broadsides published in the first nineteen years of the nineteenth century.

Early American Newspapers, Series I. (1690-1876)* - Millions of pages of colonial and early national period newspapers offer a valuable glimpse at American life. Searchable by location, keyword, date, and publication title.

Historical Statistics of the United States - A compendium of statistics about United States using United States Census information. Download tables in Excel or CSV. Includes statistical data and history of U.S. social, economic, political, and geographic development during periods from 1610 through the 1990s.

*Archive of Americana - Search these designated databases through one search box.


Free (non-subscription) Primary Sources


100 Milestone Documents - 100 milestone documents has been compiled by the National Archives and chronicles the history of the U.S. from 1776 to 1965. Both original and transcribed copies are available.

American Archives, Documents of the American Revolutionary Period - Northern Illinois University Library collection of digitized documents covering a wide range of aspects concerning the American Revolution from military operations to ideological arguments and minority experiences.

Collections of the Smithsonian Institution - Over 1 million images and records highlighting the collections of world's largest museum, education, and research complex. Search photographs, archival materials, and recordings.

Colonial North American Project at Harvard University - When complete, the project will make available to the world digitized images of all known archival and manuscript materials in the Harvard Library that relate to 17th and 18th century North America.

Digital Collections from Library of Congress – Thousands of items and collections of our nation’s treasures, including maps, manuscripts, photographs, and songs.

Docs Teach, from the National Archives - Over 3,000 primary documents is organized by historical era, from the nation’s founding to the present. Documents, including maps, charts, graphs, audio, and video are included.

Europeana - A digital repository focused on European cultural heritage. Searches and links to digital items, including images, texts, sounds, and videos.

Founders Online - This database contains correspondence of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.

Hathi Trust - Partnership of research institutions and libraries that makes available in a digital format public domain books and pamphlets within their collections.

Internet Archive - Digital multimedia collection of public domain works.  Includes copies of print works, video, and audio resources.  Also allows limited exploration of archived websites from around the Internet.

National Jukebox - Listen to some of the earliest American sound recordings including band music, novelty tunes, humorous monologues, hits from the season's new musical theater productions, the latest dance rhythms, and opera arias.

Naval Documents of the American Revolution - A growing collection of correspondence and other documents related to the naval aspect of the American Revolution.

Pennsylvania Sanborn Maps - Sanborn Fire Insurance maps for the state of Pennsylvania offer historically significant details of a town or city dating from the mid 1800s.

The Avalon Project, from the Yale Law School - Includes documents selected for their importance in American legal history. Sources can also be searched by themed “Document Collections”.

World Digital Library - The WDL makes available significant primary materials from 192 countries and cultures. Bibliographic information and content descriptions are provided in seven languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. Resources include books, manuscripts, maps, newspapers, journals, prints and photographs, sound recordings, and films.

Subject Guide

Profile Photo
Sarah Myers
Murray Library, Behind Circulation
Suite 3002
717.766.2511 x. 3590