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HIST 299: Introduction to Historical Research Methods, Spring 2021: Home

Finding primary sources

In class, we will talk in detail about accessing unpublished primary sources in archives. However, many primary sources are also published and made available through libraries. This pre-assignment will familiarize you with accessing such sources. Read the following descriptions of source types and how to access them at Oberlin, then test your comprehension by answering the questions below. 


Many primary sources are published as books, also known as monographs. Typically an editor works with a primary source collection located in an archive and selects some primary sources worthy of publication from the collection. If you have not used this type of primary source collection before, explore the example, Wanted--correspondence: women's letters to a Union soldier 

To identify these types of books in library catalogs, including OBIS, it is often helpful to combine a keyword search for your topic with a subject heading search for a term that librarians use to describe primary sources. 

Subject headings:

  • Archives
  • Caricatures and cartoons
  • Correspondence
  • Description
  • Description and travel
  • Diaries
  • Facsimiles
  • History -- sources
  • Interviews
  • Personal narratives
  • Pamphlets
  • Pictorial works
  • Posters
  • Self-portraits
  • Speeches

For example, if you were interested in civil war correspondence by women, you could use OBIS's advanced search to look for items with a keywords of civil war and women and a subject of correspondence. 

sample search - keyword: women AND civil war, subject: correspondence

If OBIS does not have the books you need, you can also search for them in the OhioLink Library Catalog


Magazines, newspapers, and other publications released on an on-going basis often provide a useful source of primary information for researchers. There are two main techniques to access these from libraries. 


Useful publications from a particular theme, time period, or geographic era are often digitized together in a searchable database. Explore African Newspapers to see an example of a newspaper database. 

Databases to which Oberlin subscribes are described on our databases list, and are given a database type of primary source or news & newspapers. You can combine database subject (e.g. Africana Studies or History -- World) and database type (e.g. News & Newspapers) to find databases that align with your topic. 

Single Titles

Often individual periodicals identified through secondary sources will be important to your research. At Oberlin, if you have the title of a publication there are three main steps to see if you can access it. 

1. Search the Journal Finder for the publication title. This will tell you if Oberlin subscribes to the publication electronically, in print, or in microfilm. In the example below, you can see that for the magazine The Nation, Oberlin has digital access through several platforms, as well as some print described in OBIS. 

journal finder example result the nation

2. If Oberlin does not have access to the publication, we may be able to get you a bound print periodical or microfilm delivered to the Oberlin circulation desk through the OhioLink Library Catalog. Search for your publication by title (e.g. Vogue) and then limit your search to "Journal/Periodical." Use "Display Holdings of OhioLink Libraries" to see which dates different schools own. Click the request button and log-in with the library barcode from the back of your OCID (not your T-number), to order microfilm or bound periodicals. 

3. If you need access to an individual article for which you have a citation, you can order this using InterLibrary Loan, which will get you a pdf, typically within a week. 


Sometimes key documents or an entire archive are duplicated on microfilm or microfiche. You can search for these by title in OBIS, or using a keyword and subject heading search for archives. An example of such an archive owned by Oberlin are the British Sessional papers

 british sessions papers

There are also archival microformat collections available in the OhioLink Catalog. The Center for Research Libraries (CRL), which is an OhioLink Member, purchases many archives that are not widely available in digital form on microfilm. Explore topic pages from the CRL website, then look up individual collections by title in the OhioLink Library Catalog to request them for use at Oberlin. 



Research Help


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Elizabeth Sullivan
Main Library, 105 Mudd
Subjects: History - American

Ken Grossi

Ken Grossi