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Primary Sources in American History: Home

A guide to finding primary sources in American history at Bowdoin and online.

Primary Sources in American History


"Primary sources are materials produced by people or groups directly involved in the event or topic under consideration, either as participants or witnesses." Secondary sources, on the other hand, "comment on and interpret primary sources".*

Examples of Primary Sources

Hint: Another very good way to find primary sources is to consult the bibliographies of relevant secondary sources (books, articles, dissertations, etc.) that have used primary sources.

*Mary Lynn Rampolla, A Pocket Guide to Writing in History, 4th ed. (Boston: Bedford, 2004), pp. 5-6.

Strategies for Finding Primary Sources

  1. Start with a secondary source: a book, article, or dissertation on topic. The bibliography or notes may include the author's primary sources, especially if the author is a historian.
  2. From our list of Databases, choose Database Types > Archival collections (a selective list).
  3. Primary Sources in American History includes suggestions for finding a variety of types of primary sources at Bowdoin and online. Sources include books; archives and libraries; newspapers, magazines, and journals; diaries, memoirs, autobiographies, letters, interviews, oral histories, and personal narratives; government publications; etc. (The suggestions can easily be adapted for non-US sources as well.)
  4. When searching databases, use as search terms those words and phrases that would have been used during the time period you are researching. For instance, for materials produced before ca. 1900, in addition to searching on "childbirth", also search on "puerperal", "puerpery", and related words.


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