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HIST 205: US 20th Century I (1890-1945) (Yuhl): Primary Sources

Spring 2024

Working with Primary Sources

Whose Voice(s)?

Similarly to academic articles, there are some very general tools that you can use to search primary sources broadly. However, it is usually more productive to work out in advance....

Who do you want to hear from...

This could be a perspective, a category of people, a specific group/organization, a geographic area or country, etc.

...And where are they? 

Next, figure out where your voices "live" in the historical record. For example: 

  • Perspectives from organizations will likely be found in either organization- or profession-specific newspapers/bulletins, proceedings of meetings/conferences, or collections of a particular organization's papers;
  • The perspectives of an individual could live in the sources above; in interviews with mainstream news media; or in a personal memoir, among others. 
  • Politicians' perspectives could show up in places such as public addresses; government documents (like the Congressional Record, on the national level), or in mainstream newspapers. 
  • Religious perspectives are likely to live either in religious-specific publications, in pamphlets put out by a church or related organizations, or in personal memoirs. 
  • etc. 

This page of the guide is designed to give you some starting points -- but you can also ask Jennifer or Prof. Yuhl for a recommendation! 

  • Be thoughtful about your search terms. Think of the language of the period -- including special formatting or other 'quirks.' Think also about specific names of people and organizations. 
  • Use the tools built into each database. Many primary resources can be browsed (or in the case of online tools, searched) by publication date, or by geographic location. 
  • Note the order of your results. Some primary source databases default to sorting by date. In some cases, sorting by relevance may be more helpful. 
  • Don't just search -- browse. In addition to reading articles that come up in your search results, spend some time looking over pages of newspapers to see what other articles are covering from the time period.  By looking beyond a single article, you'll learn about other issues from the time period and possibly see Letters to the Editors and advertisements which can provide historical context. 
  • Start early. It can be more difficult to find relevant primary sources. There may be valuable sources which you will want to request from other libraries. You may also need more time to decipher, digest, and interpret the content of your primary sources. Leave yourself plenty of time, pace yourself, and ask questions or for assistance earlier rather than later.

Use the resources in this box to assist you in analyzing primary sources for your research. 

Suggested Resources


For even more options, visit:

Historical Papers & Periodicals:

Contemporary Papers & Periodicals:


Social media platforms can be a valuable resource for “primary sources” on ongoing phenomena. Believe it or not, there are even specific guidelines for citing social media as part of your research! 

Use the resources below to help you consider social media's role in your project. 


Ephemera are sources that were usually meant for very temporary use. One way to think of them is as the byproducts of everyday life! These kinds of sources can be harder to search, but provide really interesting perspectives/ 







Google Site Search is an invaluable tool for locating sources on the web which may be scattered across disparate websites. 
  • site:*.gov influenza will search for references to influenza across US government websites. 
  • site:*.org influenzawill search the same on .org (non-profit) websites, which will hit many libraries, museums and other cultural heritage institutions (as well as some advocacy organizations, so read critically for bias);
  • site:*.edu influenza will conduct the search across educational websites. 
Government websites offer a wealth of sources and information, but can be very unwieldy to navigate. Google Site Search can allow you to search a site more efficiently.
You can also use this technique to search specific websites, or web domains belonging to a specific country. Here are some examples: 
  • site:* influenza searching British government sites
  • site:* influenza searching Zimbabwean government sites
  • site:* influenza searching the United Nations website
You should also pay attention to any collections of primary sources referenced in your secondary sources.