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Research Guides

Primary Source Databases for Historical Research

Major Collections

Row of old books.  [Photo credit: Maguis & David]

[Photo credit: Maguis & David]

What is a primary source?

War correspondent interviewing serviceman in World War II.

"Ted Stanford interviews 1st Sgt. Morris O. Harris,.WWII." Public domain photo.


Primary sources provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation.

They are created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented.

(From: "Primary sources at Yale")


Writing about History  and Finding Primary Sources (UTSC) explain more about primary source research.

What can be primary sources?

Think about what kinds of primary sources might be related to your topic:

  • letters
  • interviews
  • diaries
  • memoirs
  • oral histories
  • newspapers
  • reports
  • government documents
  • institutional records
  • music
  • pamphlets
  • maps
  • film
  • photographs
  • websites

Nowadays even your social media can be a primary source, because it reflects the reality of the times.

Four ways to find primary sources

1. Start with what you already have: to uncover references to primary sources. Consult your:

  • class notes
  • course readings
  • bibliographies of your textbook, journal articles, or other secondary sources
  • historical encyclopedias

They can also help you identify relevant historical figures, authors, or keywords for searching library databases

2. Use the library catalogue to find books and other materials.

To find primary sources on your subject, combine keywords for different kinds of primary sources with keywords for your topic.


reformation sources

world war 1914 correspondence

national socialism documents

3.  Use reliable online text collections, such as the ones in this research guide.

4.  Use one of the specialized libraries at U of T, such as the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, or one of our special collections.