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Brooke Becker
Reference Librarian for Social and Behavioral Sciences

Phone (205) 934-6364


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Historical Research and Writing: Primary Sources

Primary sources are essentially first-hand accounts taken from the same time period as the event. They may consist of letters, diaries, newspapers, memoirs, oral histories, photographs, government documents, speeches or maps, just to name a few. To find primary sources through Sterne Library, you can use several different methods, including the local online catalog, select databases and the Internet.

Sterne Library Online Catalog

Searching the local online catalog can help you identify books, journals and various other sources available in print, microform and sound and video recordings that are available in Sterne Library, the Educational Technology Service (ETS) or on-line either through the library's electronic subscriptions or freely on the web.

Some examples include:

  • Black Women Oral History Project
    E185.86. B544 (1991), v.1-10 - Print (3rd Floor Circulating)

    Transcripts of interviews of African-American women who made significant contributions to the African-American community through professional or volunteer work. The interviews were conducted between 1976 and 1981.


  • Declassified Documents Catalog System
    J83. D364 - Index (1st Floor reference) (covers 1975 - 1994)

    This collection provides a source of information regarding the United States' post-World War II domestic policy and international relations. Among other things, you will find abstracts for reports from Cabinet meeting minutes, National Security Council policy statements, CIA intelligence studies, Presidential conferences, State Department political analyses and Joint Chiefs' papers. It does not, however, include the actual documents.


  • LAC- Library of American Civilization
    Microfiche (2nd Floor microfiche cabinets) and Index (1st Floor Reference)

    The Library of American Civilization (LAC) is a microform collection of materials relating to all aspects of American life and literature and includes more than 6.5 million pages of pamphlets, periodicals, documents, biographies and autobiographies, fictional works, poetry and collections of various kinds. The collection includes materials up to World War I.


  • Foreign Relations of the United States
    KZ231 .U58 (1st Floor Reference)

    Beginning in 1861, the Foreign Relations of the United States series presents the official documentary historical record of major U.S. foreign policy decisions and significant diplomatic activity. Volumes in the series since 1952 are organized chronologically according to Presidential administrations, and geographically and topically within each subseries. This collection is also available online from the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections. (


  • Public Papers of the Presidents
    J80 .A283 (3rd Floor Circulating)

    Each volume contains the papers and speeches of the President of the United States issued by the Office of the Press Secretary during the specified time period. The material is presented in chronological order, beginning with the Hoover Administration, and the dates shown in the headings are the dates of the documents or events. The Public Papers are also available online from the University of Michigan Digital Library. (


  • The War of the Rebellion: a compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate armies.
    E464 .U6 (1st Floor Reference) Supplement to the official records of the Union and Confederate Armies
    E464 .U6 Suppl. (1st Floor Reference)

    This collection contains the official records of the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War including official declarations of secession and official correspondence, battle reports, orders, and memoranda written by those involved in the events. The entire War of the Rebellion series (but not the Supplement) is also available online through Cornell University Library's Making of America project. (

    The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion is also available online through Cornell University's Making of America project. []
  • United States Treaties and Other International Agreements
    KZ 235.3 .U58 (1st Floor Reference)

    United States Treaties and Other International Agreements, 1776 - 1949
    KZ 236 1968 .A5 (1st Floor Reference)

    This is the official series for the text of U.S. Treaties. It has been published annually since 1950, and Sterne Library's collection includes volumes from 1950 to 1982. This series was followed by Treaties in Force, the most current version of which can be found at




Databases can be very helpful for locating articles, interviews, memoirs, newspapers and other types of primary sources. There are several databases available through Sterne Library that might aid in your search for materials.

Some examples include:

  • American Periodicals Series (APS) Online

    This database includes the full text of over 1,000 American journals and periodicals published between 1740 and 1900. Each journal is completely searchable, and is saved in PDF format for easy viewing and browsing.


  • Black Thought and Culture

    This database includes non-fiction works of more than 100 leading African Americans, inclduing some full text. It also includes interviews, journal articles, biographical essays, letters and other fugitive materials. You'll also find an extensive annotated bibliography which will help you identify additional research materials. The database is searchable by keyword, subject and document type, and you can also browse the collections.


  • Catalog of U.S. Government Publications

    The Catalog of U.S. Government Publocations is the finding tool for federal publications. It includes descriptive records for historical and current publications and provides direct links to those that are available online. Users can search by authoring agency, title, subject, and general key word, or click on "Advanced Search" for more options.


  • In the First Person

    This is an index to English-language oral histories, letters, diaries, memoirs, autobiographies, and other personal narratives from around the world. It covers narratives available on the Web as well as those from institutional and individual collections. It allows for keyword searching through more than 650,000 pages of full-text by more than 15,000 individuals from all walks of life. It also contains pointers to some 3,500 audio and video files and 30,000 bibliographic records.


  • LexisNexis Congressional

    This is a huge database of Congressional materials and includes Committee Prints, Congressional Hearings and Reports, Legislative Histories and more. It includes Congressional documents and citations to Congressional materials dating back to the late 18th century.



  • Poole's Plus / Nineteenth Century Masterfile

    This database bills itself as the "the largest resource for historical research prior to 1925" and includes more than 6 million citations to articles, books and government documents published in the nineteenth century.


  • Television News Archive

    This database includes summaries of nightly television news broadcasts produced by the ABC, CBS, and NBC networks since 1968 and of selected CNN programs aired since 1995. The database also covers ABC's Nightline, and special reports on major national and world events. It also includes video from CNN.


  • UAB Digital Collections

    This database includes materials for various UAB collections including Art History (a collection of images), UAB theses and dissertations, letters of Florence Nightingale, and Oral History (recorded interviews focusing on Alabama life and culture.

Primary Source Collections on the Web

In recent years, a number of museums, universities and private organizations have begun producing impressive web pages containing digitized primary documents. These sites have made materials available for research that previously would have been virtually inaccessible to the average undergraduate or graduate level researcher.

As always, when using a website, carefully analyze the authority, accuracy, objectivity, currency and coverage of the site to ensure the validity of the information presented. A helpful guide to evaluating Internet sites can be found at

Additional information on finding and using primary source collections online can be found at and at

A few examples of primary source collections available online include:


The Alabama Department of Archives and History have produced several digital collections, including the Digitized Collection (including telegrams to and from Governor George Wallace concerning the presence of troops at the University of Alabama), Alabama State Publications, and the Frank W. Boykin Collection. Other collections, such as the Selma to Montgomery March, Civil War Period Flag Collection, Confederate Officers Photograph Collection and Alabama Governors page are still under construction but should be available soon.


  • American Memory, Historical Collections for the National Digital Library -

    The Library of Congress' American Memory project provides free and open access to written and spoken word collections, sound recordings, still and moving images, prints, maps, and sheet music that document the American experience. By the year 2000, over 5 million items were available online through the American Memory project.


  • The American Presidency Project -

    This is a great source for Presidential documents and information. It includes searchable messages and papers from each of the presidents dating back to George Washington, Presidential signing statements and proclamations, and nomination acceptance speeches. It also includes a large multimedia collection, including Presidential radio addresses and FDR's fireside chats.


  • Avalon Project at Yale Law School, Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy -

    The Avalon Project includes primary documents in law, history and diplomacy spanning more than five centuries. The documents are browsable by century, subject, title and author.


  • A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation, U.S Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875 -

    This collection consists of published U. S. Congressional records from the Continental Congress through the 43rd Congress, 1774-1875. This online collection houses the records of the U. S. Congress up to 1875, which includes the first three volumes of the Congressional Record, published by the Government Printing Office.



This collection consists of material on such topics as Alabama Inventors, Coal Mines and Mining in Alabama, Gee’s Bend, Sixteenth Street Church Bombing, Vulcan and Women Artists in Birmingham among several others.  


  • Documenting the American South -

    This collection provides online access to texts, images, and audio files related to southern history, literature, and culture. Currently it includes ten thematic collections of books, diaries, posters, artifacts, letters, oral history interviews and songs.


  • EuroDocs: Primary Historical Documents from Western Europe -

    This site links to collections of primary historical documents from 24 European countries that have been either reproduced, transcribed or translated.


  • FBI Records: The Vault -

    Here you will find the most frequently requested documents that are available for reading at the FBI's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Reading Room. Thousands of pages of frequently requested FBI documents that have been released under the provisions of the FOIA are stored in the Reading Room. Many of these documents have been converted to PDF format and are available for viewing on this site.


  • Making of America -

    Making of America is a digital library of primary sources in American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction. The collection is particularly strong in the subject areas of education, psychology, American history, sociology, religion, and science and technology. The collection currently contains approximately 9,500 books and 50,000 journal articles with 19th century imprints.


  • National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) -

    The National Archives web site includes over 124,000 documents and photographs that have been digitized and are available for viewing on-line.


  • New York Public Library Digital -

    NYPL Digital includes the library's rare and unique collections in digitized form which includes historic maps, rare prints and photographs, illuminated manuscripts, unusual printed ephemera and sound files and moving images. All historical media are presented as specific, original artifacts, without further enhancement to their appearance or quality, as a record of the era in which they were produced.


  • Northwestern University Library Digital Collections -

    This site includes links to various digital collections at Northwestern University, including Africana posters, History and Politics Outloud (audio of American history and politics) and the Paris Codex. Many of the collections are available on-line.



  • Women Working, 1800-1930 -

    This collection focuses on women's role in the United States economy and provides access to selected digitized historical, manuscript, and image resources from Harvard University's library and museum collections. The collection features approximately 500,000 digitized pages and images including 7,500 pages of manuscripts, 3,500 books and pamphlets and 1,200 photographs.
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Created by:

Brooke A. Becker, Reference Librarian for Social and Behavioral Sciences

Jeff Graveline, Reference Librarian for Business & Government Documents

Last updated: April 2012