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Research Guides

History: Primary Sources

What is a Primary Source?

In the discipline of history Primary Sources are items that were created during the time period under study. They allow researchers to get as close to their object of study as possible in spite of the passage of time. These items might be documents, news stories, letters, diaries, interviews, artifacts, government publications, photographs, or recordings. *The definition of primary source differs in other disciplines, so check with your instructor for specific details.*

In addition to the original items, digital versions of original items or reprints of original items are also considered primary sources.

Primary Sources for American West

This unique database contains digitized primary unique source materials relating to the American West, including manuscripts, journals, maps, railroad records, newspapers, and ephemera.
Covers years 1722-1939.

Government Documents

Governments produce a wide range of information: legislative hearings and debates, census data, scientific reports, records of expenditures, laws and regulations, statistical information, administrative and agency reports. This information is published in a wide range of formats: online databases, websites, microforms, books, CD-ROM, maps. As with digital collections,

  • 100 Milestone Documents in US History is a list of 100 milestone documents, compiled by the National Archives and Records Administration, and drawn primarily from its nationwide holdings. The documents chronicle United States history from 1776 to 1965.

  • National Archives and Records Administration has a variety of online exhibits that contain primary sources.

  • MetaLib is a federated search engine that searches multiple U.S. Federal government databases, retrieving reports, articles, and citations while providing direct links to selected resources available online. Many are available full-text while others are available at the UI Library.

  • Hein Online includes full-text reproductions of many major legal and congressional publications including the Annals of Congress (1789-1824), the Register of Debates in Congress (1825-1837), the Congressional Globe (1833-1873), and the Congressional Record (1873 to the present).

  • Thomas provides access to current and historical bills back to 1973.

Primary Sources in Books

You can use the library’s catalog, Primo, to find books that have primary sources reprinted in them. Include keywords or subject terms related to your topic. Add words like “sources,” “documents,” “correspondence,” “interviews,” personal narratives,” “speeches,” “pictorial works,” "letters," or “diaries.”

American Voices of World War I: Primary Source Documents, 1917-1920
Martin Marix Evans
Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2001.
D570.9.A57 2001

The Depression and New Deal: A History in Documents
Robert S McElvaine
New York : Oxford University Press, 2000.
E806.M43 2000

Environmental Issues in American History: A Reference Guide with Primary Documents
Chris J Magoc
Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2006.
Ref GE150.M338 2006

Lynching in America: A History in Documents
Christopher Waldrep
New York : New York University Press, 2006.
HV6457.L95 2005

Milestone Documents in American History: Exploring the Primary Sources That Shaped America
Paul Finkelman; Bruce A Lesh
Dallas, Tex.: Schlager Group, 2008.
Ref E173.M62 2008


Newspapers are considered primary sources if they contain first-hand accounts and were published at the time an event took place. Newspaper stories that occur after an event and/or contain second-hand accounts are considered primary sources.

  • Pacific Northwest Historical Newspapers Archive
    Historical newspapers from Washington, Oregon and Idaho chronicle the explosive growth of the Pacific Northwest during the 19th and 20th centuries.

  • University of Idaho Argonaut
    The library has the Argonaut on microfilm from 1898 to the present. Full-text is available online from 2000 to the present. Indexing is available for selected years.

  • The New York Times
    The New York Times website has an index that will let researchers search for articles back to the 1851. Some articles are available full-text online. The University of Idaho also has the New York Times on Microfilm.

  • Other Idaho Newspapers
    The library has microfilm reels for many other Idaho newspapers dating back more than 100 years. They are located on the second floor of the library. Indexing is not available for most newspapers, so it helps to know the date of an event when searching for information. Scrolling through issues on or around that date can lead to locating a useful article.