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Primary Source Search Strategies

Familiarizing Yourself with Background Information

  • Reference Source
    A first step you need to do to find primary materials is to familiarize yourself with the background information on your topic. Library reference collection is a great place to get started. These reference materials will give you a good overview of the topic, will outline the basic historical context, and will help you identify key issues, events, participants, dates, and even keywords needed for you to plan a more informed and efficient search.

    Examples of Reference Sources:
    • Specialized encyclopedias
      • Encyclopedia of of the American Civil War : a political, social, and military history
      • Latin America, history and culture : an encyclopedia for students
      • Encyclopedia of Asian History
    • Chronolgies
      • Chronology of World Hisotry: a Calendar of Principal Events from 3000 BC to AD 1976
      • The Timetables of History: a Horizontal Linkage of People and Events
    • Factbooks
      • Encyclopedia of American Facts and Dates
    • Biographical dictionaries and encyclopedias
      • Dictionary of World Biography
      • Current Biography (1940-present)
    • Specialized bibliographies and guides to research
      • Bibliographies in American History: Guide to Materials for Research
      • Sources of Information for Historical Research
      • A Reference Guide to Latin American history
  • Textbooks and Journal Articles
    Textbooks and journal articles (especially those with extensive bibliographies) and other secondary sources can provide you background informaiton and clues about the event, participants involved, as well as source of materials useful for your research.

    To search for journal articles, use appropriate databases listed in the database page from the Library Web (

    For general history topics, you can use the following online databases to find articles:
    • America: History & Life
    • Historical Abstracts
    • JSTOR
    • Project Muse
    • Humanities Abstracts
    • Academic Search Premier

Where to Find?
Primary sources may be in their original format or may have been reproduced at a later date in a different format. Library Catalogs, electronic databases, and the Web are tools can be used to find primary sources.

What to Find
OneSearch To find primary sources in the libraries, EXECPT ARTICLES, use OneSearch Advanced Search. Uisng OneSearch, you can find primary source materials such as, addresses, correspondences, diaries, documents, eyewitnesses, interviews, maps, music scores, periodicals, personal narratives, photographs, speeches, and sound recording.      
Online Databases

Some primary sources are digitized in subscription databases:


For primary sources on the Web, see the selective list of Primary Sources on the Web or search the Web using Google.  For important advice on finding and evaluating primary sources on the Web, see Using Primary Sources on the Web from the History Section of the Reference and User Services Association, a division of the American Library Association.

Types of Primary Source

Where to Search

Printed & Published

Addresses, autobiographies, correspondences, diaries, documents, evidence, events, eyewitnesses, interviews, letters, memoirs, oral history, personal narratives, speeches, transcripts, cartoons, posters, etc.

Use Library Catalog Advanced Search.

Search by topic (in most cases, names of events) and add the appropriate type of primary source. Use AND to link the topic and the source type.


material type + keyword(s) of topic

  • diaries and dust bowl
  • personal narratives and Korean War
  • interviews and japanese americans
Newspaper articles, advertisements, cartoons etc. from the time period you're researching

For newspaper articles or other types of materials on newspapers:

Search electronic newspaper databases such as, Historical Los Angeles Times, Historical New York Times,  Newsstand, London Times Digital Archive (1785-1985)Current Digist of the Russian Press

Magazine articles from the time period you are researching

For magazine articles or other type of materials in magazines:

Use an article database, such as Readers Guide Retro (1890-1982) to locate either full text articles or citations (title, author, name of the magazine, date, volume, page number) of the relevant articles.

If you have the citation already, use Journal Name Search to determine whether the magazine is available at CSULA Library.

Government Documents

Search OneSearch Advanced Search using Subject/Keyword and limit Collection Type to Government Documents. For complete records of government agencies, go to Government Information Resources & Services page at For Congressional publication, go to Congressional Publications database.


Consult one of the following printed indexes in the library:

  • Fiction Catalog   Z5916 .W74
  • Short Story Index   PN6014 S56b
  • Play Index   Z5781.P53
Primary Sources on the Web

Finding Primary Sources on the web is easy, but the key is how you are going to evaluate the quality of the sources. 

  • For important advice on finding and evaluating primary sources on the Web, see Evaluating Primary Sources  from the History Section of the Reference and User Services Association, a division of the American Library Association.
Audio/Video Materials

Search the OneSearch Advanced Search using Subject/Keyword and limit Material Type to Audio/Visual.

The library have subscriptions to streaming video and audio.  You can check the following media databases:

Materials in other libraries

Multi-Search, or Open WorldCat provides catalog access to 110+ million holdings worldwide. Includes catalog records for books, journals, films, sound recordings, videos, etc. It is a good tool for you to find books in your local libraries or other libraries. Since many primary source materials are rare books hosted in library archives or special collections, these items may not be borrowed through the interlibrary loan service. Open WorldCat helps you identify which library has a particular item, so you can plan to make a trip to a local library to use the item.

John F. Kennedy Memorial Library
California State University, Los Angeles
5151 State University Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90032-8300