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Primary Sources

A selective guide to finding primary sources at USC and beyond

Search Strategies

Primary source research requires a slightly different approach. Here are a few tips/strategies: 

Start by doing some background reading or "pre-research": The more you know about key events, people, laws, and especially common terminology used during the time period you are researching the more successful your research will be. You can use Wikipedia or the libraries' online encyclopedia collections to do this. 

Limit to specific time periods: When searching for primary sources online always remember to use date ranges (usually on the advanced search page) to focus your search.

  • Depending on the time period, remember that it took time for news to get reported or to spread to other parts of the country. It often helps to include a few weeks after an event to ensure you get results.
  • Start with broader search times but limit to a narrow time period. For example: if searching for articles about the Massacre at Wounded Knee, search for: "wounded knee" limit to the date range of 12/29/1890-1/12/1891 (the word massacre may not have been used immediately after the event, but the location)

Use primary source keywords to find primary sources:  Use search terms that reflect the types of primary sources you’re looking for, such as: diaries, pamphlets, correspondence, speeches, manuscripts, personal narratives, interviews, firsthand, eyewitness, sources, etc.

For example: slave AND diary  |  suffrage AND pamphlets  |  united states and race relations AND sources

Archival Finding Aids: are descriptive inventories of archival collections that help users find relevant materials. These can be very detailed or if the collection has been only marginally processed, can be very bare bones. It is important to remember that when searching for primary sources in the physical archive that you are not searching for their full text as you are when searching many other online sources. It sometimes helps to do broad searchers for general topics or names, places.