What is a primary source?

A primary source is a piece of information about a historical event or period in which the creator of the source was an actual participant in or a contemporary of a historical moment. The purpose of primary sources is to capture the words, the thoughts and the intentions of the past. Primary sources help you to interpret what happened and why it happened.  Examples of primary sources include: documents, artifacts, historic sites, songs, or other written and tangible items created during the historical period you are studying.

(Source: National History Day

How is a primary source different from a secondary source?

A secondary source is any source of information that was created after the event, by someone who did not participate in the event.  Most of the sources you will find online or in books are secondary sources.

Primary source examples

Secondary source examples

A letter written by a Civil War soldier

A website that gives information about the battles in the Civil War

A popular song written during the Civil War

A picture of the battlefield taken after the war ended

Web Searching Tips:

Search for your topic by keyword/subject or by the title of a specific primary source

Use Keywords

When you don’t have a specific primary source in mind, for search terms use your subject plus "primary sources."


world war I soldiers primary sources

Use Primary Source Title

Identify a specific primary source title from reading a secondary source (i.e., book, article, encyclopedia, etc.), and enter that title in quotes in the search box.  TIP: For a famous primary source – i.e., the Declaration of Independence – in the search box, include quotation marks around the title and include the word text or transcript.


“A soldier recalls the Trail of Tears” of “Declaration of Independence”

(Source: ALA’s RUSA Division

For help with using appropriate key works to use when doing your research, click on the following video:


U.S. National Archives - Online Catalog


Online catalog can be searched using keywords and provides access to over 2 million electronic records.  Most records that are unrestricted or are public use versions are available for electronic download.  Able to refine searches to photographs and images.

U.S. National Archives - DocsTeach (“Get Ready for NHD”)


Links to primary sources for possible NHD topics including boycotts and child labor.  Includes audio, video, charts, graphs, and maps.

The Library of Congress - American Memory


Access to over 9 million digitized prints, maps, presidential papers, sound recordings, sheet music, as well as still and moving images.

The Library of Congress - Digitized Newspapers


A digitized newspaper archive that includes newspapers from throughout the U.S., dating back to the mid-19th century.  Searchable by state and time period.

National History Day (NHD) - Student Resources


The official NHD website has a wealth of websites listed for your research purposes (a few of which are also included in this webliography).  Depending on your topic, some of the links may be useful, but all sources should be evaluated for accuracy and credibility.

Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) - Primary Source Sets


Collection of primary source items from libraries, museums and archives throughout the U.S., including letters, photographs, oral histories, videos, sheet music, and more.  Searchable by subject and time period, and can be filtered in chronological order.

Digital Public Library of America - NHD Topics & Links


Includes sample NHD topics and related primary source links to those topics.

Hawaii State Public Library (HSPLS) Databases


Note: You will need a Hawaii state public library card to access these online databases from anywhere outside a public library.  You will need to have your library card number and PIN setup beforehand.

The public library system of Hawaii provides access to various online databases (as long as you have a valid public library account and PIN setup).  Go to “History” in the Topic column (left-hand side) for a list of databases and see suggestions below:

  • Archives Unbound - specifically for primary, unpublished archived documents; searchable by keyword or selected collections by geographic area and/or time period

  • History Reference Center - access to reference books, nonfiction books, encyclopedia articles, journal articles, historical documents, photos, maps; searchable by keyword and check the filter box for “Primary Source Documents” on the left hand-side of search results

  • Japanese-American Relocation Camp Newspapers - digital newspapers providing record of day-to-day life in the Japanese relocation camps, searchable by keyword or collections or categories

  • U.S. History in Context - access to full-text magazines, academic journals, news articles, primary source documents, images, videos; searchable by keyword and click on “Primary Sources” to filter your search results

  • Honolulu Star Advertiser (Go to “Hawaii” in the Topic column) - full text articles from November 30, 2002-present; select “full-text” checkbox for complete articles

New York Public Library - Digital Collections


Includes more than 900,000 historic photographs, posters, maps and other images from the New York Public Library’s collection.  Note: Need to click on “Search only public domain materials” for free access when typing in search with keywords.

Yale University Law School - The Avalon Project


Documents related to law, history, and diplomacy.  Database is broken down by time period then listed in alphabetical order, starting with ancient and medieval documents and moves into 21st century.

Smithsonian Learning Lab


Includes artifacts, portraits, videos, and websites of important figures and founders related to the American Revolution.  Click on the magnifying glass icon on the top left corner (see image below) to begin your search or for more information on how to search the Smithsonian Learning Lab collection and resources, go to this link: .

Newseum Ed


Access Newseum’s vast collection of primary sources with explanatory text, including historic newspapers, original newsreels and other artifacts.  Content is searchable by topic, century, key people and more.  Click on the magnifiying glass in the upper right corner to begin your search.

Life Magazine Photo Archive


This search engine is a partnership between Google and Life Magazine and includes millions of images from the Life Magazine Photo Archive.  Searchable by key terms, decades (1860s through 1970s), or important people, places, events or sports topics.