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Early College Experience (ECE) Guide — Primary Sources

Guide to UConn Library's resources for members of the UConn ECE community

What is a Primary Source?

Primary sources are the raw materials of history. They are unique materials that are created at the time of a historical event that serve as proof of historical facts. 

Primary sources:

  • provide firsthand evidence 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.  
  • capture the words, the thoughts and the intentions of the past. Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to what actually happened during a historical event or time period.
  • can be used to determine how we know about historical events, or cultural trends. How do we know about a moment once it is passed?  By the evidence it leaves behind.
  • are used by historians, who, by applying critical thinking skills, develop an interpretation of a historical event.

Primary vs Secondary Sources in Four Minutes

Digital Repositories

It's All About Context

There is nothing that definitively makes a source "primary" or "secondary" - it's all about the relationship between your research topic and the source material.  The same source can be a primary source OR a secondary source, depending on how you are studying it.

For example, Stephen Oates' 1977 biography of Abraham Lincoln, With Malice Toward None: A Life Of Abraham Lincoln, could be considered a

  • Secondary Source, if you are studying the life of Lincoln
  • Primary Source, if you are studying texts accused of plagiarism

Primary and Secondary Sources in the Humanities and Social Sciences

Finding Primary Sources

There are lots of places to start searching for primary sources in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Below are some places to start your search.

Library Search

Library Search finds items in the UConn Library Collection, including archival materials, print materials with original text, printed facsimiles, and online resources that link to digital facsimiles. 

For help finding primary sources using Library Search, see the Using the Library Search (Catalog) to Find Primary Sources tab.


Archives & Special Collections holds over 1000 collections of archival materials and primary sources. Primary sources from cultural institutions around the state of Connecticut can also be found in the Connecticut Digital Archive.

Research Guides

Library Subject Specialists create Research Guides that provide information and instruction on research within specific subjects.  Each guide varies, and may include primary source databases and other helpful resources in that field.  For additional help finding primary sources in a subject, contact the subject specialist profiled in the specific research guide.

Selected Primary Source Library Databases and Websites

Library Search finds items in the UConn Library Collection

To search for primary source materials, use the Advanced Search

Search Using Primary Document-Related Terms

Add words that identify types of primary sources. These are often part of the Subject Heading, a search option in Advanced Search.  These terms may include:

personal narratives correspondence interview letters
sources speeches diaries manuscripts
(Note that some terms work better than others depending on the topic)

In the Advanced Search, type your topic on the 1st line. On the 2nd line, change the Any field drop-down to Subject and use of the the subject headings that specify primary sources.

sample subject heading search for primary document types

Search Using Date

Narrow your search to the year of publication to find contemporary materials.

Search Using Author

Search a person's name as an author (changing the Any field drop-down to Author).  Search by author, not as a subject or keyword, as that will find materials about the person, not works by the person.