History books and papers are all about interpretation of primary sources. You pick a historical event or trend, and then examine the evidence of the time—newspapers, manuscripts, photographs, letters and diaries, official records, and artifacts—looking for information about what people thought and how they acted. Your writing is an argument on how to interpret this evidence, and part of an ongoing conversation with other historians about whether your interpretation (and theirs) is correct.
Primary vs. Original Sources
The term "primary source" describes any document or artifact created at the time you are studying. It is important to remember that primary sources can be collected, organized, reprinted, and republished many times over, even if the original document is destroyed or disappears.
The databases below contain thousands of primary sources from early American history, up to and including the Civil War. Need to broaden your search? Check out the Library's complete guide to primary sources for more links.
Archives are unique collections of primary and secondary sources. Most institutions—universities, companies, libraries, governments—gather their official documents into an archive for preservation, including policy papers, product designs, reports, maps, photographs, prints, and artwork. Personal papers and collections of prominent historical figures like art collectors, industry leaders, authors, and scientists, also end up in archives.
Until recently, archives were inaccessible to most historians, unless they spent considerable time and effort in traveling to where the archives were physically located and obtained permission to access, examine, and use the materials. Today, archives are going digital. All of the archives listed on this page have digitized some, or all, of their collections, so that you can search and view items online.