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Archives & Special Collections Research Guide: Primary Source Websites

A guide with information about resources available at the Mansfield Library's Archives & Special Collections department, and about archival and special collections materials located elsewhere.

What's a Primary Source?


A primary source provides a first-hand account or direct evidence about the person, place, event or object being depicted.

The following websites contain information about primary sources - what they are, where to find them, and how to use them in your research:

Why Study History Through Primary Sources? (Fordham)

How to Read a Primary Source (Bowdoin)
Using Primary Sources on the Web (American Library Association)

Primary Source Websites

United States

American Memory - Library of Congress
American Memory is a gateway to rich primary source materials relating to the history and culture of the United States. The site offers more than 9 million digital items including
sound recordings, still and moving images, prints, maps, and sheet music. Items can be search individually or browsed thematically.

Avalon Project at Yale Law School
Digital documents (transcripts, not scans of the originals) relevant to the fields of Law, History, Economics, Politics, Diplomacy and Government.

Census Data
There are several websites which provide historical census data, including Statistical Abstracts from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Decennial Census Population and Housing Counts from the U.S. Census Bureau, and the Historical Census Browser from the University of Virginia.

David Rumsey Historical Map Collection - Over 17,000 maps online. Collection focuses on rare 18th and 19th century North and South American maps but also has maps from around the world. Collection includes atlases, maritime charts, globes, city and county maps, and more. You will need to download a plug-in to view more than a thumbnail image.

Documenting the American South
A digital publishing initiative that provides Internet access to texts, images, and audio files related to southern history, literature, and culture. Currently (2008) DocSouth includes eleven thematic collections of books, diaries, posters, artifacts, letters, oral history interviews, and songs.

Harvard University Library Open Collections Program
Online access to historical resources from Harvard's renowned libraries, archives, and museums. Current collections include Women Working, 1800-1930 - exploring women's roles in the US economy between 1800 and the Great Depression, and Immigration to the United States, 1789-1930 - books, manuscripts, maps, photographs, and other historical materials that document voluntary immigration to the United States from the ratification of the Constitution in 1789 to the Great Depression. Two new collections will be available in 2008 - Contagion: Historical Views of Disease and Epidemics and Islamic Heritage Project.
Making of America - Cornell University Library
Digital library of primary sources in American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction. The collection is particularly strong in the subject areas of education, psychology, American history, sociology, religion, and science and technology. This site provides access to 267 monograph volumes and over 100,000 journal articles with 19th century imprints.  

Making of America - University of Michigan
Digital library of primary sources in American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction. The collection is particularly strong in the subject areas of education, psychology, American history, sociology, religion, and science and technology. The collection currently contains approximately 10,000 books and 50,000 journal articles with 19th century imprints.

National Archives and Records Administration
NARA is the official repository of documents (photographs, maps, reports, correspondence, etc.) produced by US federal government agencies. From the research page of NARA you can link to the Archival Research Catalog (ARC), the Access to Archival Databases (AAD) page, online guides and research aids, lists of Record Groups and more.Remember, only a small portion of what NARA holds in its facilities has been digitized for online access.

World (countries other than the US as major focus)

European primary source documents that are transcribed, reproduced in fascimile and/or translated. They are intended to provide information about key historical happenings within the retrospective countries.

Inscriptions of Israel/Palestine
Collection of previously published inscriptions (and their English translations) of Israel/Palestine from the Persian period through the Islamic conquest (ca. 500 BCE - 640 CE). There are about 15,000 of these inscriptions, written primarily in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin, by Jews, Christians, and pagans.

Primary Source Publications and Microfilm at the Mansfield Library

The Mansfield Library owns thousands and thousands of books, e-books, and microfilm rolls that contain transcriptions or copies of personal papers (such as letters, diaries, photographs), business records, and/or organizational records. Good keywords to use as you search the library catalog for primary source materials are: sources, papers (and papers of), documents (and documents of), manuscripts, and records.  

Some examples:

Documents of Soviet History (Books)
v. 1. The triumph of Bolshevism, 1917-1919; v. 2. Triumph and retreat, 1920-1922; v. 3. Lenin’s heirs, 1923-1925; v. 4. Stalin grasps power, 1926-1928; v. 5. Revolution from above, 1929-1931; v. 6. Restoration of order, 1932-1934; v. 7. Foundations of Stalinism, 1935-1937. Call number: 947.084 D6378.

The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower (Books)
v. 1-5. The war years; v. 6. Occupation, 1945; v. 7-9. The Chief of Staff; v. 10-11. Columbia University; v. 12 NATO and the campaign of 1952; v. 13. NATO and the campaign of 1952; v. 14-17. The presidency-- the middle way.
Call number: 973.921 E36Z3

Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs: Central Classified Files, 1907-1939 (Microfilm)
ser. A. Indian delegations to Washington (25 reels); ser. B. Indian customs and social relations (23 reels); ser. C, pt.1. Reports on Medical and Nursing Activities (29 reels); ser. D, pt.1. General Organization, Regulations, and Types of Schools (12 reels); ser. D, pt.2. Correspondence and Reports on Reservation Day and Boarding Schools (30 reels). The microfilm collection is located at call number 970.5 R311 on Level 1 of the Mansfield Library. A guide to the collection is located on top of the Microfilm shelves at call number 970.5 R311.

Western Americana, Frontier History of the Trans-Mississippi West, 1550-1900 (Microfilm)
Assembled in cooperation with the Beinecke Library at Yale University and the Newberry Library, this collection makes available on 600+ reels of microfilm the basic printed sources for the exploration, settlement and development of the Trans-Mississippi West. It spans the years from 1550 to 1900; that is, from the first explorations down to the end of the frontier. Geographically it covers the region from the Spanish borderlands on the south to the Arctic Ocean on the north; from the Mississippi Valley and Hudson’s Bay on the east to the Pacific Ocean and Bering Straits on the west. The microfilm collection is located at call number 978 W527 on Level 1 of the Mansfield Library. A guide to the collection is located on top of the Microfilm shelves at call number 978 X W527.

Women’s Studies Manuscript Collections from the Schlesinger Library, Series 2, Women in National Politics (Microfilm)
52 reels of microfilm of women's papers housed at the Schlesinger Library. The microfilm collection is located at call number 973.91 R211Z on Level 1 of the Mansfield Library. Guides for this collection, including biographical sketches, bibliographies, reel indexes, and subject indexes, are located on top of the microfilm cabinets on level 1 at call number 973.91 R211Z.

Journals published by state historical societies, such as Contributions to the Historical Society of Montana, often contain transcripts of primary source accounts of life and activities of that state.