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Undergraduate Research in History


Primary Sources

This is a guide for Boston College's undergraduate student population in how to approach historical research.

What is a Primary Source

Primary sources are the items that get you as close as possible to the answer to your historical question. If you ask "Why did the chicken cross the road?" then the best, primary source might be to ask the chicken (oral interview). This is, however, history and the chicken might have already passed on to the great chicken coop or the chicken might be have an unreliable memory. In those cases, the best source might be the chicken's diary or a newspaper covering that historic road-crossing. In that situation, the newspaper is the document/object that gets you closest to an accurate answer, making it the primary source.

Examples of sources that might be primary include:

  • Speeches
  • Diaries
  • Autobiographies/Memoirs
  • Letters
  • Interviews
  • Images
  • Audio or Video Recordings
  • Newspaper Articles
  • Magazine/Periodical Articles (written at the time studied)
  • Archival Records/Logs/Data
  • Political/Legal Documents
Note that part of the challenge in identifying a primary source is that it depends on the question. Sources that seem like secondary material--say an encyclopedia--can be primary if the question is "How did late 19th-century encyclopedias depict US Reconstruction?" Suddenly, the closest you can get to the question are those beautiful encyclopedia. 

Finding Sources

Primary sources may be available in many different formats:

  • As original manuscripts, records, and printed texts in library, museum, and government archives
  • Reprinted and compiled as collections in monographs
  • Transferred to microfilm or microfiche
  • Digitally reproduced in library-subscribed databases or open websites

You may need to explore several different mediums and locations to discover relevant primary sources for your research. To access several of those repositories look at the History Research Guide to access different collections of sources by type or geographic place. 

Search the BC Catalog for Primary Sources

Search the physical collections at BC Libraries to find primary sources on a particular topic:



For example:

  • enter immigra* and hit Go for primary sources on immigrants or immigration
  • enter peace and hit Go for primary sources on peace movements

Other primary sources are available through digital collections and primary source databases.

Search Terms

When searching for primary sources in the BC Catalog, WorldCat, or any library catalog, try adding the following terms to your search:

  • Sources
  • Narratives
  • Correspondence
  • Letters
  • Diaries
  • Speeches
  • Interviews
  • Archives