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A Guide to...African History

Working with Primary Sources

  • Be mindful of 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. 

Collections of Primary Sources

Newspapers & Periodicals:

For even more options, visit:

Pamphlets, Correspondence & Other 'Ephemera':

Books (incl. Memoirs & Travel Accounts):


In the Library:

You can find many kinds of primary sources in the library. This could include writings published during the relevant time period as well as editions of primary accounts/documents that were re-published later. 

When using CrossSearch, you can check the Catalog box on the left navigation bar to only search for items in the library catalog, then use the date slider to look at publication dates in your time period. 

Remember to watch your keywords -- a book written in the early 20th century will use different vocabulary to talk about various historical events.

Note that because the subject headings used in the Library of Congress system are quite old, the language used can sometimes be problematic. Librarians as a profession are working hard to change the way our information is organized -- but in the meantime, subject headings will help you find information filed under terminology we wouldn't typically use today. 

It is important to recognize where the catalog may use outdated terminology, both to acknowledge, in our position as researchers, its shortfalls and inherent biases, AND to enable us to find the sources we are looking for. For example, today many believe that it is 
preferable to use the term "enslaved person" rather than the term "slave." However, the catalog system still organizes books about enslaved individuals under the term "Slaves." 

Keyword tips for finding primary sources in Dinand: 

  • Try the name of a specific region (including names they might have been known by in the past). 
  • Things of words related to the kind of source you're seeking. For example, terms such as voyagetraveljourney are examples of words that appear often in titles of travel accounts.
  • All books in the catalog are labeled with a kind of tag, called subject headings, that tells you what the book is about and brings together all the books on similar topics.  โ€‹You can use these tags by clicking on them or by using them as keyword inspiration. 

Government & Political Documents:

United Nations Records:

African Records: 

Other European Records:

Images & Multimedia:

Misc. Web Archives: