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Home >> Research & Instruction >> Research Services Blog >> Need Help With Primary Research?

What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are original documents used in research, including letters, manuscripts, diaries, journals, newspapers, speeches, interviews, memoirs, photographs, ephemera, audio recordings, videos, objects or artifacts. Primary sources serve as the raw material to help historians and others interpret the past.  These documents are often created at or near the time of the event and are usually reflections on experiencing the event in question.

In contrast, secondary materials provide commentary and interpret the events surrounding the primary materials or the primary materials themselves.  Secondary sources are often in the form of books or article journals.

Students at San Diego State are lucky because the Special Collections and University Archives have a vast collection of primary sources that students can use when conducting research.  There are a number of ways you can find primary sources at San Diego State.  Check out the Special Collections and University Archives homepage, for more information on what collections are available and how to use the finding aids to help navigate the wealth of primary resources available to you.  Remember, the Special Collections and University Archives, located on the 1st floor of Love Library, is open to students and librarians are available to help you with your primary source research.

Information below adapted from SDSU’s Research Guide: Primary Sources.

Finding Primary Sources using OneSearch

Primary source documents are frequently collected in published books. To find these collections in the library using OneSearch, follow these steps.

1. Brainstorm some keywords and phrases about your topic. If you were researching women's suffrage in America, for example, some good keywords and phrases might be "suffrage," "women," "feminis*," "nineteenth amendment," "vote*," or "activis*". The * symbol is used in truncation which returns grammatical variations of words. For example, feminis* will search feminsim, feminist, and feministic. Surround phrases with quotation marks to search the words together as a phrase, instead of indivually. 

2. From OneSearch's Advanced Search, pair your keyword with some of these common words found in subject headings for primary sources which include: sources, diaries, correspondence, speeches, documents, and interviews. See OneSearch (advanced search) example below. 

OneSearch search interface using keywords and subject headings for above example.

3. Use the limits on the left (under tweak my results), such as publication date, location, or language to narrow down your search.

4. Browse your results and click on titles which sound relevant or useful to your topic.

Online Digital Resources

There are many digitized collections of primary sources available freely online.  Below are just a few of the free digitized primary resource collections available on the web.

Library Resources

Special Collections and University Archives Resources

I found a Primary Resource, now I need help evaluating it!

You are often asked to evaluate primary resources. The following questions can be helpful for you to ask when analyzing a primary source.

• What type of document is it? Who was it produced by, or for?

• When was the document produced? What physical details reveal this?

• Why do you think it was produced? What was the purpose of the document?

• What was the author's relationship to the document? What evidence shows this?

• Are there inconsistencies or ambiguities in the document? Does the document make an argument? If so, is it supported or warranted? What makes it reliable or unreliable?

• What does the document reveal about the period in which it was produced?

• What research questions would this primary source answer?

• What else would you like to know about this document or its topic? How could you find the answers to those questions?

The following links should also help you to think about how to analyze a primary resource for your papers and assignments.

Questions? Need Help?

Check out the Tips section on the Primary Sources guide to read more helpful tips to finding and evaluating primary resources.  Remember, you can always or to get help finding primary resources available through the library or Special Collections.

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Location: Library Addition, 1st Floor
Phone 619.594.6728  Text: 619.567.9743

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