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Primary Sources for Historical Research   Tags: historical_research, history, history_3930, primary_sources  

This guide aims to help UNO students identify primary sources available in Criss Library and via Criss Library databases.
Last Updated: Apr 24, 2014 URL: Print Guide RSS UpdatesEmail Alerts

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Primary Source Databases


Criss Library subscribes to several commercial databases which provide access to primary sources. They are accessible via the Internet through the library website, but only currently-enrolled UNO students may search them from off-campus computers. Anyone may visit the library to search on public computers here.

Early English Books Online: scanned facsimiles of over 100,000 books and tracts published between 1473 and 1700 in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and British North America.

American Periodicals Series:  scanned facsimies of articles published in over 1,000 American magazines and journals spanning 1740-1900.

British Periodicals: scanned facsimiles of articles published in almost 500 British magazines and journals spanning the 17th century through the early 20th century.

Economist Historical Archive, 1843-2009:  the influential British magazine, fullly scanned and searchable.  

HarpWeek: scanned images and text files for articles published in Harper's Weekly from 1857-1912.

HeritageQuest: scanned and searchable images of handwritten U.S. Census records through 1930; over 25,000 family and local histories; Revolutionary War pension and bounty land warrant application files; and Freedman's Bank Records.

Early American Newspapers: over 750 newspapers spanning 1690-1876, fully scanned and searchable.  Entire issues may be downloaded as PDF files.

New York Times, 1851-2009: the newspaper, fully scanned and searchable.

The Times Digital Archive, 1785-2007:  the Times of London, fully scanned and searchable.  

U.S. Congressional Serial Set, 1817-1980: over 300,000 documents compiled by Congress. Many documents of Executive departments and agencies were included during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

HeinOnline: This database contains the Congressional Record (1873- ) and its predecessor series:  the Journals of the Continental Congress (1774-1789), the Annals of Congress (1789-1824), the Register of Debates in Congress (1825-1837), and the Congressional Globe (1837-1873).    

CQ Historic Documents: extending back to 1972, this collection compiled by Congressional Quarterly includes about 100 documents each year, which represent major events around the world.

The following databases and online archives are freely available to anyone via the Internet:

Nebraska Public Documents: a compilation of state agency annual reports and other documents extending from 1890-1929. This project intends to eventually extend to 1956. Hosted by the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at UNL.

Afghanistan Digital Collection: items held in Criss Library's Arthur Paul Afghanistan Collection, a number of which are now very rare. Thanks to the UNL Digital Commons for their cooperation in hosting the collection.

Library of Congress American Memory: a rapidly growing collection of primary sources drawn from archives around the country.

Making of America: a "digital library of primary sources in American social history from the antebellum period through Reconstruction." Includes over 12,000 books and 50,000 magazine articles from the 19th century.

The Avalon Project: Documents in Law History and Diplomacy: for fifteen years (a lifetime on the Internet!), the Avalon Project at the Law Library of Yale University has provided transcriptions of landmark historic documents, ranging across many centuries from the Code of Hammurabi to an archive of post-9/11 reports.

UNO Gateway: UNO's student newspaper, scanned and searchable from 1922 through May 2013. This digitization project was funded as a signature event in celebration of UNO's centennial.


What Are Primary Sources?

Many history professors assign research papers or projects which require students to examine primary sources.  In such cases, it is not enough to gather relevant books and journal articles (secondary sources); instead, you must go further and find primary sources to inform your research.

The UCLA Institute on Primary Sources gathered a number of definitions for primary sources, and its website provides a useful overview of the topic.  Primary sources may be defined as "evidence left behind by participants and observers," which "enable the researcher to get as close as possible to the truth of what actually happened during an historical event or time period."  The website also provides a helpful list of examples:

  • diaries, journals, speeches, interviews, letters, memos, manuscripts and other papers in which individuals describe events in which they were participants or observers;
  • memoirs and autobiographies;
  • records of organizations and agencies of government;
  • published materials written at the time of the event;
  • photographs, audio recordings, moving pictures, video recordings documenting what happened;
  • artifacts of all kinds....

This research guide aims to help you identify primary sources available in Criss Library and via Criss Library databases.  I intend to take a very practical approach, because in most cases you must complete your research paper or project within a single semester.  This means that you must identify and lay hands on pertinent primary sources within a few weeks, leaving time to examine them and understand them within the context(s) provided by books and journal articles.

I recommend browsing and prospecting for primary sources early in your research, so you can refine your topic in light of  readily available primary sources.  The library also offers Interlibrary Loan service, which can often borrow items from other libraries around the country.  The trick to Interlibrary Loan is to identify such items early enough to request them, receive them, and have enough time left to work with them.

The most important advice I can give concerning primary resources is to stay alert.  This guide provides tips which will help you identify primary sources; even so, primary sources may lurk in unexpected places, and finding them provides much of the fun in historical research.  While clearly a serious endeavor, historical research should be fun as well.

The Guy Who Wrote This Guide

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Jim Shaw
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Government Documents Librarian
Dr. C.C. and Mabel L. Criss Library
University of Nebraska at Omaha
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Digital Libraries and Archives


Rene Erlandson, Director of Virtual Services at Criss Library, alerted me to this useful directory of online primary sources:

250+ Killer Digital Libraries and Archives

From the guide:  "Hundreds of libraries and archives exist online, from university-supported sites to individual efforts. Each one has something to offer to researchers, students, and teachers. This list contains over 250 libraries and archives that focus mainly on localized, regional, and U.S. history, but it also includes larger collections, eText and eBook repositories, and a short list of directories to help you continue your research efforts."

It seems that every week, if not every day, new Internet sites are launched which provide access to historical documents.  They vary considerably in scale and scope, but many provide access to primary sources which would otherwise require much effort to see.

The following directories have prove especially useful for identifying online archives, and they include many reviews by professional historians who evaluate the academic quality of the sites:

History Matters

World History Matters


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