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Primary Sources: How to Find Primary Sources

guide to finding and working with primary sources for TCNj affiliates

Primary Source Discovery

Use our library's Advanced Search to find primary sources reproduced in books. Begin by taking just a few minutes to understand Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH). Subject headings are tags assigned by librarians to the records (or descriptions) of books. LCSH convey not merely what a book is about (i.e., its subject) but also its source type (e.g., primary source). Books associated with the following sub-divisions reproduce primary sources. For many topics, subjects in red will be the most useful.

  • Archives (sub-division)
  • Caricatures and cartoons (sub-division)
  • Correspondence (sub-division)
  • Diaries (sub-division)
  • Documentary and Documents (neither used in LCSH, but useful for keyword searches; often appears in book title)
  • Early accounts (sub-division; only used for the Americas)
  • Early works (sub-division)
  • Facsimiles (sub-division)
  • Interviews (sub-division)
  • Letters (main heading; e.g., "American letters")
  • Manuscripts (sub-division)
  • Notebooks, sketchbooks, etc. (sub-division)
  • Oratory (main heading)
  • Pamphlets (sub-division)
  • Pictorial works (sub-division; work must contain at least 50% pictures)
  • Personal narratives (sub-division)
  • Sourcebook or Source Book (not used in LCSH, but useful for keyword searches)
  • Sources (sub-division)
  • Speeches (main heading)
  • Translations into English (sub-division)

Also useful:

  • Autobiography (main heading)
  • Biography (sub-division)
  • Memoirs (sub-division)
  • Oral history (techniques of recording the oral recollections of persons with knowledge of historical events and collections of such recollections)
  • Personal memoirs (sub-division)
  • Testimonies (not used in LCSH, but useful for keyword searches)

Examples: Find primary sources from the American Civil War:

Granted these multi-part headings are not intuitive. Fortunately, all researchers effectively need to know is that correspondence, diaries, narratives, and sources are used as sub-divisions that indicate the presence of primary sources. The following pre-formatted keyword searches reveal citations to books that reproduce Civil War era primary sources.

The following catalogs connect researchers to both paper and digital archives.

Best Bets:

Deeper Dive:

The following book series provide access to primary sources:

Gitenstein Library Books:

Other Libraries and Archives:

Keep in mind that many primary sources have not yet been digitized! Access to primary sources generally occurs by: 1) visiting the physical or digital archive of a major research institution (see below); 2) gaining access to licensed primary source databases through your academic library; and 3) consulting circulating library books (print or electronic) that reproduce primary sources.

TCNJ history students able and willing to travel to Princeton and other nearby research libraries can take advantage of archival collections and specialized primary source databases (e.g., World Scholar: Latin America). Capstone students especially should take advantage of our proximity to the world-class archival collections listed below. The list includes links to digital collections, virtual exhibitions, and archival finding aids.

New York City Orbit (Alexander, Bobst, Firestone):

Philadelphia Orbit (Paley, Van Pelt):

Humanities Librarian

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David C. Murray
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609-771-3217