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Atlantic World History: Primary Sources

What Are Primary Sources?

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!

Searching for Digital Collections

Many libraries and organizations are making digital materials available online.

  • To find these collections, use a search string like this one in Google or another search engine:

digital collection library site:.edu slavery atlantic

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?​

The Power of Subject Terms

You can use Library of Congress subject terms (see Books and Articles tabs) to help you find primary sources.

- Primary-source books and other resources in GIL/GILFind (or any library catalog) will have subject terms in their records. Those subject terms may include words that signal "primary source," such as:


(image from http://www.wordle.net/)

- Use other subject terms to help you identify other keywords/subject terms relevant to your topic.

Digital Collections @ GSU

Is There a Website for That?

George Mason University's National History Education Clearinghouse has published reviews of over 1000 history-oriented websites.

The National Endowment for the Humanities' Edsitement! site's History/Social Studies section also includes many approved websites featuring historical material.

Browse, or use keywords to search for a website or digital library relevant to your topic.

Looking for Resources on a Particular State?

Many state-based libraries and organizations are digitizing materials relating to the their state.

The Library of Congress has assembled this list of state digital libraries. Search by state, or check out the Multi-State options.

Books Available Online