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Georgia History: Primary Sources

What Are Primary Sources?


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Primary sources are the raw materials of historical research - they are the documents or artifacts closest to the topic of investigation. Often they are created during the time period which is being studied (correspondence, diaries, newspapers, government documents, art) but they can also be produced later by eyewitnesses or participants (memoirs, oral histories). You may find primary sources in their original format (usually in an archive) or reproduced in a variety of ways: books, microfilm, digital, etc.

In contrast...

Secondary sources are interpretations of events written after an examination of primary sources and usually other secondary sources, such as books and journal articles.

When you write a research paper, you are creating a secondary source!

Books Available Online

These online collections include digital versions of many out-of-copyright works including government documents, historical magazines and other periodicals, and books published before 1923. Coverage can be spotty, but these sites are worth searching...  just in case.

Use the power of subject searching

Books in libraries are assigned one or more subject headings. These are standardized terms that ensure books on the same topic can be found even if the keywords are different.

Doing an "Exact Search" in GIL using a basic or broad subject heading will give you a list of subcategories for that subject.

Examples of broad subject headings:

  • Georgia History Colonial period ca. 1600-1775
  • African Americans Georgia
  • Atlanta (Ga.) History (or another city: Savannah, for example)
  • Fulton County (Ga.) History
  • Atlantic Coast (Ga.) History
  • Georgia Genealogy
  • Georgia Census

"Sources", "Correspondence," "Diaries," "Maps," etc. are good indicators that an item is a primary source.

For example:

  • Georgia History Sources
  • Women Georgia Atlanta Diaries
  • African Americans Georgia Atlanta Map

When you find a good book, look at its subject headings in the catalog record. Follow these to list other items on that topic. Or, use the subject heading terms in a new keyword search.

Local Newspapers

See the Historical Newspaper Holdings guide for more information about the GSU Library's historical newspaper holdings and on how to search for specific newspapers.

Seleted Digital Collections: Freely Available

Searching for Digital Collections

Many libraries and organizations are making digital materials available online.

To find these collections, use this search string in Google or another search engine, in addition to keywords relevant to your topic, for example:

digital collection library site:.edu slavery Georgia

You can also try the same search limiting to site:org rather than site:edu BUT:

Be careful!

EDU = educational institution
ORG = organization, which can mean almost ANY kind of noncorporate organization. If you aren't familiar with the organization, do some research on it! Who are they? What do they promote? Are they reliable?

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The Library of Congress has also assembled this list of state digital libraries. Check the list for Georgia, or check out the Multi-State options.

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For more information about evaluating websites, see the Evaluating Information tab, above.

Looking for Historical Maps?

These links are from our general Geography guide. Check out the "Find Maps" tab there for more information. 

Selected Print Primary Sources