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History - U.S. (Clement Ho)

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What is a primary source?


A primary source is a first hand account.  Among the type of documents general considered primary sources are:

  • What people say (speeches, interviews).
  • What people write (books, papers, letters, emails, blogs).
  • Newspapers.
  • Government documents.
  • Laws, regulations, court decisions, treaties.
  • Statistics.

Often an old publication, e.g. anything before the twentieth century, is considered a primary document. The reasoning being that it is a first hand account of that time period.

Sometimes, secondary sources, such as scholarly journal or magazine articles, are considered primary sources. It depends on the subject of study. For example, a study of popular culture in the nineteenth century would use magazines as a primary source.  Similarly, topics in intellectual history would use journal articles as primary documents.

Finding U.S. History Primary Sources

The following databases and websites are useful in finding the location of primary and archival collections. Most of these are in the United States, however, many collections pertinent to U.S. history are located throughout the world.

U.S. History Primary Sources @ American University Library

Search Tips

Boolean operators:

AND - use to narrow a search and get fewer and more relevant results.
elections and voters

OR - use to broaden a search and get more results. Good for synonyms and words with variant spellings. Add parentheses when using OR.
(latin america or argentina or colombia)
(organization or organisation)

NOT - use to narrow a search to get more relevant results
mexico not new mexico


Use to find words with different word endings.
e.g. immigrant* yields immigrant, immigrants
e.g. immigra* yields immigrant, immigrants, immigrate, immigration, immigrating, etc.

Truncation (or wildcard) symbols:

• Most databases use an asterisk (*).
• LexisNexis uses an exclamation mark (!).
• AU Library catalog and World News Connection use a question mark (?).
• iPolls & RoperExpress use a percentage sign (%).
• Ovid databases use dollar sign ($).

    Proximity search:

    Use to find words that are close to each other on a page.
    It is one way to find more relevant results.

    Each family of databases has its own command words.

    nnumber=words near another word in any order, within a certain number
    fundamental* n3 islam*

    same=words in same paragraph
    sex trafficking same ngo*

    nearnumber=words near another word in any order, within a certain number
    president* near3 speech

    =words near each other in any order, within a certain number
    "watershed planning"~10

    w/number=words within a specified number of words, in any order
    human rights w/2 violations

    w/s=words within the same sentence
    crime w/s (dc or district of columbia)

    w/p=words within the same paragraph
    gays w/p military

    near/number=words near another word in any order, within a certain number
    renewable energy near/5 viable

    =words near another word in any order, within a certain number

    Web of Science:
    Web of Knowledge:
    Social Science Citation Index:
    near/number=words near another word in any order, within a certain number
    government near/3 fund*