SFCE 572

History of American Schooling and Literacy

About Historical Primary Sources

Primary sources are materials that were created at the time period you are studying. In the case of memoirs, they are the materials recorded later by a participant or witness of an event.

Examples of primary sources are:

  • books - nonfiction & fiction
  • magazine and journal articles
  • photographs and images
  • speeches
  • letters
  • diaries
  • memoirs and autobiographies
  • government documents
  • advertisements
  • films and audiorecordings
  • materials generated by companies & organizations
  • objects and ephemera (e.g., postcards)
  • court decisions

As you do background research on your topic, consider what primary sources might exist. Bibliographies you find in books and articles often mention their primary source material.

Finding historical primary sources can get complicated!

Where you look for primary sources will vary greatly depending on your topic!

What type of primary source makes the most sense for your topic? If your topic relates to education policies, you may want to find government documents or laws. If your topic relates to a specific individual or institution, you may want to explore specific archival collections (including digitized collections). If you are interested in adding personal perspectives, you might look for relevant diaries, memoirs, or letters--and these are sometimes published as books (see Finding books for tips).

Since finding primary materials can be challenging, you may want to make an appointment with a librarian for help. Kate, the Education Librarian, can help you get started looking for any type of material (and she has some specific expertise in finding government documents and laws). Some EMU librarians have graduate degrees in History and are especially skilled at finding primary sources--Kate may be able to refer you to the librarian with the best expertise for your topic. The EMU Library also has a archivist, Alexis Braun Marks, who is especially skilled at finding archival records at EMU and other materials in archives.

The boxes below provide:

  • Additional Library guides related to using archives and legal materials
  • Tips on finding published primary source material
  • ​Digital collections of primary sources that may be especially helpful

Other Useful Library Guides

Locating Published Primary Sources

Published collections of primary sources often contain materials such as diary entries, letters, government documents, newspaper articles, speeches, and photographs.

To find collections of primary sources on a topic in the EMU Library's Esearch system:

1. Make sure you are at the Esearch "Advanced" search screen.

2. In the top box, type in a words or phrases that describe your topic.

3. In another row of search boxes, change the type of search in the drop down box from "All Fields" to "Subject Terms."

 4. In the search box for the "Subject Terms," add one of the following:

archival resources




early works to 1800














5.  OPTIONAL: To limit to books only, scroll down the screen to the "Content type" options and change "Any" to "Book/eBook." You can also limit to items in the library's catalog by scrolling to the "Show only" options and clicking box next to "Items in the library catalog (includes mostly print and physical material)."

6. Click on the "Search" button located in the bottom left-hand corner of the page.

Digital Collections

Get Research Help

Use 24/7 live chat below or:

In-person Help Summer 2024 Mon-Thur, 11am - 3pm

Email or phone replies

Appointments with librarians

 Access Library and Research Help tutorials

Education Librarian

Profile Photo
Kate Pittsley-Sousa
Subjects: Education