Skip to Main Content

HIST 2900: The Historian's Craft

A Sampling of Primary Documents Databases

The following are just a few of the databases you might try to identify primary documents in American History.

Primary Documents in Library Search (WMU's online catalog)

Use the Libraries' ADVANCED SEARCH to find primary sources on your topic in the WMU collection.

Since the terms "primary documents" or "primary sources" are not Library of Congress (LC) subject headings, these are not the best keywords to use.  Instead, use some or all of the following keywords that will help you identify primary documents that we have in our collection. The generic LC subject heading for primary documents is  sources.  Here are some of the most helpful keywords to use:

  • sources
  • diaries
  • letters
  • "oral history"     (use quotation marks to get exact phrase)
  • "personal narratives"     (use quotation marks to get exact phrase)
  • interviews
  • speeches

The trick is to combine one or more of these keywords with whatever topic you are researching.  For example:

  • "cold war"  (HINT:  using the quotation marks will pick up the entire phrase)
  • "oral history"

or the following search:

  • slave*        (HINT: using the asterisk as a wild card will pick up all variations of the root word, e.g., slave, slaves, slavery, etc.)
  • "personal narratives" OR diaries OR letters OR sources

While not every single item that comes up is guaranteed to be a primary document, at least some of them should be.

What IS a Primary Document?

The University of California at Berkeley has an excellent definition of primary sources. Reading through the first few pages of this Web site will be crucial as you try to find primary documents on your topic.

Yale University provides a great explanation of the differences between primary, secondary and tertiary sources.

Primary Documents Online Guide

Check out the extensive guide on primary documents in history.

Primary Documents in History Guide

HathiTrust Digital Library

Logo of and link to the Hathi Trust web site

The HathiTrust is a partnership of major research institutions and libraries working to ensure that cultural records are preserved.  Some items are full-text online and others are in print form; check our online catalog to see if we own them.

Click on the HathiTrust image above to connect to the catalog to begin your search.

Meet Your Librarian

Profile Photo
Carrie Leatherman
Office: Waldo Library Room 1048 (First Floor)
Office Phone: (269) 387-5142