Primary Sources

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Finding Primary Sources

What is a primary source? 

Primary sources may be letters, manuscripts, diaries or memoirs, newspapers, government documents and laws,court rulings, clothing, pottery, art, human remains, recorded sound or other items that offer original evidence of a civilization, a person or group of people, societies and cultures, or a place.  These sources may provide a foundation to interpret and understand the past within a given frame of time.  The sources are used in conjunction with previous scholarly studies or secondary sources.  Since a single primary source represents only one piece of evidence, consulting various sources when possible is necessary in an attempt to understand different perspectives or phenomenon.

Check OSU library catalog  for primary sources owned by the  Libraries available in their original formats in Special Collections, published books, microfilm, and digital databases.

Use the information below to help find sources in the library catalog: 

Limit a subject or word search with the following words:  
sources, archives, correspondence, diaries, personal narratives, 
interviews, church records and registers, early works to 1800, wills, probate records, sermons

   United States – Foreign Relations – Germany – Sources
   Witchcraft -- Europe -- History – Sources
   Slavery -- United States -- Personal Narratives

Sample Keyword search:
   Napoleon* and revolution and "personal narratives"
   Slavery and South Carolina and 

   Kosovo and interviews

   "race relations" and sermons
american civil liberties union" and archives

    catholic* and england and "church records"

Using an * finds Napoleon or Napoleonic etc.
Using quote marks searches for a phrase

Author Search

Do an a search of a known person to look for a memoir, autobiography, or historical texts such as writings of an ancient author  (eg. Herodotus)


OSU Libraries Special Collections
unique resources and primary research materials

Special Collections  
Find brief descriptive information on OSU special collections and links to more information.  Link to the specific special collection to find specialists who can assist you with finding primary resources in those collections

 Find manuscript collections using the Discover search -​   
  -use the default search space; enter keywords; select the Special Collections box.  

 Find books in Special Collections using the OSU Library catalog.
  - go to and select the type of search (eg. keyword, subject, author etc.)
  - enter search terms and then click on the box that says "Search Full Catalog" and select Spec Collections & Archives
  - click on the submit button.  All results will be items in Special Collections

Digital Collections  is a searchable database of selected items from three library collections.  The number of images will increase as we add items to the database.  Also use the Discover search -​  

Special Collections

Rare Books and Manuscripts Contains primary-source materials and related published works from the medieval period to modern literature and the arts.  

Byrd Polar Archives - "Historical collections contain papers, records, photographs and other forms of documentation concerning explorers, scientists and other figures and organizations prominent in the advancement of knowledge about polar environments."  Find digital images and documents. Also use the Discover search -​  

Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum - "world’s largest collection of comic strip tear sheets and clippings…unique, original art and manuscript materials"  Find digital images and documents. Also use the Discover search -​  

Hilandar Research Library  The Hilandar Research Library houses the largest collection of medieval Slavic Cyrillic manuscripts on microform in the world. The Library is a collaboration between the Ohio State University Libraries and the Resource Center for Medieval Slavic Studies.

Historic Costume & Textiles (College of Education and Human Ecology)  "scholarly and artistic resource of apparel and textile material culture,"  18th century-present

Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute  This collection focuses on the performing arts and includes personal papers; organizational archives; costume, scene, lighting designs, and technical theatre documentation; costumes; models of stage sets and theatres; photographs; posters; artwork; film, videotape and sound recordings; realia; and other types of documentation.  Find digital images and documents. Also use the Discover search -​  

Medical Heritage Center - rare books, archives and medical artifacts

Ohio Congressional Archives - "collections of private papers and related materials compiled by or pertaining to members of the Ohio delegation to the United States Congress"

University Archives - historical resources produced by departments and people at Ohio State University; includes manuscripts material and roughly 2 million photos and other images

Other Central Ohio Collections

Ohiolink     (goes to advanced search menu)  Find primary sources at academic libraries throughout Ohio.  Search as you would in the OSU Libraries catalog

Ohio History Connection
Archive for the state of Ohio agencies and offices; historical manuscripts and public documents

          See Collection Description
State Library of Ohio   SLO digital and rare book collections
-Also Genealogy Resources 
Ohio Wesleyan University Libraries (Delaware, Ohio) -- Rare Books and Manuscripts


Archives of Ohio United Methodism

Columbus Jewish Historical Society

Franklin County Genealogical & Historical Society


Selected digital and print primary sources:


Primary Sources: International

Primary Sources: United States

Sample Guides:

The Pursuit of History (ebook) by John Tosh. Routledge, 2015.
This classic introduction to the study of history ... revised and updated with key new material including: - a brand new chapter on public history - sections on digitised sources and historical controversy - discussion of topics including transnational history and the nature of the archive - an expanded range of examples and case studies - a comprehensive companion website providing valuable supporting material, study questions and a bank of primary sources.

Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources By Laura Sangha (Editor). New York: Routledge, 2016
Call number: D228 .U53 2016     [2012 edition is ebook]
This book is "an introduction to the rich treasury of source material available to students of early modern history. During this period, political development, economic and social change, rising literacy levels, and the success of the printing press, ensured that the State, the Church and the people generated texts and objects on an unprecedented scale. This book introduces students to the sources that survived to become indispensable primary material studied by historians...[such as] governmental, ecclesiastical and legal records, diaries and literary works, print, and visual and material sources." Also includes chapters on documents related to themes such as religion, science, and politics.