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University of Oregon

​Finding Primary Sources

The UO Libraries holds specialized, primary source collections on various topics and in various formats.

About This Guide

The following is a select list of resources and strategies for starting research using primary sources. For further assistance, ask at the Reference Desk or contact the Subject Specialist Librarian for your subject area.

This site is adapted for the University of Oregon Libraries from the UC Berkeley page Library Research Using Primary Sources by by Corliss Lee.

Off-campus access to some of the electronic resources listed on this page is limited to current UO students, faculty, and staff and is indicated by a UO lock UO Lock Small Icon.

Finding Primary Sources

UO Libraries primary sources collections offer extraordinary research opportunities. Particular strengths include Oregon heritage: history and politics, the University of Oregon, documentary photography, lives of women, intentional communities and alternative voices, pioneers and tribal peoples. With thousands of complex collections to choose from, finding just what you need can be hard. We offer the following resources:

What are Primary Sources?

"A primary source is a document, image, or artifact that provides evidence about the past. It is an original document created contemporaneously with the event under discussion. A direct quote from such a document is classified as a primary source. A secondary source is a book, article, film, or museum that displays primary sources selectively in order to interpret the past." Robert C. Williams, The Historian's Toolbox: A Student's Guide to the Theory and Craft of History, p.58

Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to what actually happened during a historical event or time period. A primary source reflects the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer. Many primary sources are unique and can only be found in one library or manuscript collection in the world. Fortunately, many have also been copied onto microfilm, published, reissued, translated, or, in some instances, published digitally on the web. Remember, however, your best source may not be on the web.

Some examples of primary sources include:

  • Books, magazine and newspaper articles published at the time
  • Hand-written documents like diaries and journals
  • Maps
  • Laws & court cases
  • Speeches, interviews, letters
  • Memoirs and autobiographies
  • literary manuscripts
  • Records of government agencies
  • Records of organizations
  • Public opinion polls
  • Fiction from a particular time and place
  • Research data
  • Religious or philosophical texts
  • Artifacts of all kinds: physical objects, furniture, tools, clothing, etc.
  • Photographs, audio recordings, movies and videos
  • Art, including paintings, prints and other media

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What are Secondary Sources?

A secondary source is a work that interprets or analyzes an event or phenomenon well after the fact. It is generally at least one step removed from the event. An article about the writings of Jorge Luis Borges or one written in 1990 exploring the history of the Vietnam war, would be considered a secondary source since it would be written later looking back at the event, while Borges's writings themselves or a news article written during the Vietnam war would be considered primary.

To help place a primary source in its context-historically, culturally, politically, etc.-start with Research Guides by Subject. These guides provide information about relevant article indexes, reference sources, and search strategies that will help you locate secondary sources.