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Primary Sources

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Primary Sources

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. (from the National History Day web site)

Examples of Primary Sources

  • Memoirs, letters, interviews, autobiographies, diaries, personal narratives
  • Magazine or newspaper articles from the time period of a historic event
  • Speeches
  • Photographs, cartoons, advertisements
  • Audio recordings and video recordings
  • Ephemera – buttons, banners, leaflets, posters
  • Congressional information and records of government agencies like the Census Bureau

Primary Sources in the Library Collection

Library Books

Books in the library collection may contain primary sources. For finding sources on people or organizations, add the word [sources] to your catalog search. For finding sources on topics, add the word [archives] to your catalog search. For books with material written by participants in a historical event, add search term [personal narratives] or [correspondence]or [diaries] or [letters] or [interviews].

Library Databases with primary sources

With your library card, you can access these databases from anywhere. If you don’t have a library card, register online for immediate access to these resources.

Readers' Guide Retrospective: 1890-1982 Discover primary source magazine articles from 1890 to 1982. Use the Ask Us chat box on the left to request scans of the articles you find.

New York Times Historical Backfile on ProQuest Read articles and see photos from the complete New York Times. Contains the full-text of the paper from 1851 to three years ago.

Explora Middle School Search by keyword and narrow your ’Source Types’ to ‘Primary Source Documents.’

Explora High School Search by keyword and narrow your ’Source Types’ to ‘Primary Source Documents.’

Gale eBooks (formerly Gale Virtual Reference Library) Search by keyword and narrow by ‘Primary Source’ under ‘Document Type’ field.

High School (Gale In Context) Search by keyword and narrow by ‘Primary Sources.’

Colorado, Western United States, and African American Research Collections

Digital Collections Online collection containing a selection of photographs, maps, broadsides, architectural drawings and other documents from the collections of the Western History/Genealogy (WHG) department.

Western History Subject Index Citations to historical local newspapers (entire runs of the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News), local histories, biographical works, newsletters and journals. Search for articles; contact WHG to access copies of articles.

Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library A research archive featuring African-Americans who settled the West from early pioneers to present-day heroes. The collection includes photographs, manuscript collections, letters, and diaries,

Primary Sources on the Internet

Use primary source keywords to find primary sources:  Use search terms that reflect the types of primary sources you’re looking for, such as: diaries, pamphlets, correspondence, speeches, manuscripts, personal narratives, interviews, firsthand, eyewitness, sources, etc.

Examples: slave AND diary  |  suffrage AND pamphlets  |  united states and race relations AND sources

National Archives Docs Teach Thousands of primary source documents from the National Archives: written documents, images, maps, charts, graphs, audio and video.

Chronicling America Search America's historic newspaper pages from 1789-1924 or use the U.S. Newspaper Directory to find information about American newspapers published between 1690-present. 

EuroDocs Western European primary historical documents.

History: Latin America A research guide to primary and secondary sources for Latin American history.

American Rhetoric American speeches (both recorded and text).

Ad Access American and Canadian advertisements from 1911-1955.

Metropolitan Museum of Art Clothing and costumes searchable by time period and geographical location. 

Denver Public Library and Primary Sources Handout