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Primary Sources: Home

An introduction to finding primary sources.


As part of your research for your project or dissertation you will need to access primary sources.

These can be held in a variety of collections, locations and sources. This Libguide will help you get started.

Further information

The History ELE pages will contain details of specialist sources for your topic area, so don't forget to consult these and the subject experts in the department. Check out this module for useful websites for primary sources and local collections.  

HIH2001 Doing History: perspectives on sources

Special Collections

The Library's Special Collections department houses primary sources in many formats including letters, diaries, manuscripts and photos, which can be accessed via their dedicated reading room in the Research Commons, Old Library. 

Use the Archive Catalogue Search to find out what is available.

For more information, visit the webpages.

South West Heritage Trust

If you would like information about local archive collections see the South West Heritage Trust. This includes the Devon Archives, West Country Studies Library and Devon and Cornwall record society.  

RAMM, Exeter

If you would like information about collections held at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, take a look at their website

Cathedral Collections

If you would like to explore the Exeter Cathedral Library Collection you can search both the Library and the Archives.

Two of the best know items in the collections are the Exeter Book of Anglo-Saxon poetry (MS 3501) and the Exon Domesday manuscript (MS 3500). There are, however, many thousands of other items in the collections, which span the 10th century to the present day.

If you would like to know more have a look at their website.

Primary sources

Primary sources are documents which were created during particular historical periods, as opposed to secondary sources, which are written at a later date about particular historical periods.

Examples of primary sources are:

  • Government publications,
  • newspapers,
  • photographs,
  • original art work
  • diaries,
  • interviews,
  • memoirs,
  • letters,
  • manuscripts,
  • business records,
  • court cases,
  • census data,
  • speeches.


Secondary sources analyse primary sources, using primary source material to answer research questions. Secondary sources may analyse, criticise, interpret or summarise data from primary sources. Examples of secondary sources include:

  • books
  • journal articles
  • reviews of literature


Secondary sources may also be primary sources.

For example, if a scholar from the 19th century studies the nature of contemporary literary criticism, then their critique from the 19th century becomes a primary resource.


The University has access to a wide range of online archival collections. These contain digitised copies of documents, letters, books, photographs and other primary sources. Some archival collections are freely available online.

It's worth remembering that not everything you require will be available online!

You may need to make research trips to access print material as well. Don't forget the Library's Special Collections holds primary source material you can use. 

To find books written during the time period studied, e.g. what was written about travel during the nineteenth century:

  • In the Catalogue or Articles + more tab, click on Advanced Search
  • Type in your search terms in the Any Field box, e.g. travel
  • Enter the year or range of years in the Year box(es) e.g. After 1800 and before 1901


To find autobiographies, diaries, memoirs, letters, interviews, speeches:

  • In the Catalogue or Articles + more tab, click on Advanced Search
  • If you know the name of the individual, enter this in the Any Field box, e.g. Churchill
  • If not, enter the topic of interest in the Any Field box, e.g. Spanish Civil War
  • In the next Any Field box add a primary source, e.g. letters
  • Run your search, e.g. Spanish Civil War and (diaries or letters or interviews)

Be aware that searching for biography will result in both biographies and autobiographies.

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What type of primary source do you need?

The University has access to an extensive range of online archival and primary source materials. These include historical newspaper collections, personal archives, primary source collections and subject specific collections (such as war diaries and journals, historical events, social, cultural and political collections). On the tabs above are a selection of different types of source materials.

To explore these resources use the A-Z database list. Filter the database type field to Archives to see the full list. You can add a subject i.e. History as a filter to refine the list.

There are so many types of primary resources it is important to define your parameters to help you to identify where to search. 


  • Discipline (e.g. art, history, physics, political science) / Topic (e.g. economic, cultural, political, region),

  • Format (e.g. book, manuscript, map, photograph),

  • Type of information you need (e.g. numerical data, images, polls, government reports, letters),

  • Date range.

ECCO (Eighteenth Century Collections Online) includes the digital images of every page of 180,000 titles published during the 18th century. 


EEBO (Early English Books Online) provides access to more than 125,000 titles published between 1473 and 1700.


Historical Texts brings together EEBO, ECCO and 65,000 texts from the British Library 19th Century collection.


The John Johnson Collection includes posters and handbills for theatrical and nontheatrical entertainments, broadsides relating to murders and executions and different kinds of printed advertising material. Offers unique insights into the changing nature of everyday life in Britain in the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

The University of Exeter Digital Collections contains digital images of Exeter's most prestigious research collections, including over 2000 images showcasing Victorian culture. There are 1000s of images to choose from, all free to you use in your teaching and learning. 

Wellcome Images provides access to over 100,000 high resolution images including manuscripts, paintings, etchings, early photography and advertisements.

The out of copyright images are being released under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) licence, which means they can be used for commercial or personal purposes, with an acknowledgement of the original source (Wellcome Library, London). 

BoB (Box of Broadcasts) is an interactive media streaming service which allows you to record, watch and make clips from television and radio programmes. See here for tutorials

BFI InView contains non-fiction film and television titles from the 20th century to the early 21st. 

The British Council Film Collection is an archive of over 120 short documentary films made by the British Council during the 1940s, designed to show the world how Britain lived, worked and played.

British Pathe is an archive of vintage film footage with more than 90,000 videos from 1897-1970.

 Europeana is a free collection of nearly 50 million artworks, artefacts, images, books and sound recordings from the national libraries of Europe. 

News on Screen is provided by the British Universities Film and Video Council. It contains 160,000 records of British cinema newsreel production 1910 - 1979 and a large collection of digitised documents.

The UK Parliament and other national and regional assemblies and parliaments around the world typically publish official papers on their activities, providing a potentially rich resource for research into political and legislative processes.

Proquest UK Parliamentary Papers (House of Commons Parliamentary Papers)

Fully searchable full text of House of Commons parliamentary papers from the 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st centuries (1688- ). Includes full text from Hansard debates from both House of Commons and House of Lords (1803-2005). A guide to using this resource is available here.

Other legal sources include:

The Old Bailey Online contains accounts of the trials conducted at London's central criminal court between 1674-1913, as well as the Ordinary's Accounts (detailed narratives of the lives and deaths of convicts executed at Tyburn, published between 1676-1772).


Early English Laws is a project to publish online and in print new editions and translations of all English legal codes, edicts, and treatises produced up to the time of Magna Carta 1215.


English Law Reports (1220-1873) and the publications of the Selden Society are available online via the HeinOnline database, Westlaw or Lexis. The full text of the English Reports is also freely available on the website of CommonLII (the Commonwealth Legal Information Institute). Reports are browsable by year or by alphabetical sequence. To find the English Reports on Westlaw use the Cases tab and enter the party names or citation in the search box. 

This guide provides information about the archival news sources available. 


The British Library is the UK's national library and holds extensive collections of printed materials and manuscripts. Separate online catalogues cover Asian collections, photographs and manuscripts. 


The National Archives holds over 11 million historical government and public records, one of the largest archive collections in the world. From Domesday Book to modern government papers and digital files, the collection includes paper and parchment, electronic records and websites, photographs, posters, maps, drawing and paintings. 


Archives Hub facilitates searching across a wealth of archives held at nearly 200 institutions in England, Scotland and Wales. .


The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world. Its website includes collections of historic newspapers, sound and film recordings, maps and manuscripts. The American Memory site is a digital record of American life and history. 


The British Cartoon Archive Digitisation Project holds more than 150,000 original editorial, socio-political and pocket cartoons. The collection of original artwork dates back to 1904 and includes work by W.K. Haselden and David Low, amongst many others. 


British History Online is a digital library of the core printed primary and secondary sources for the medieval and early modern history of Britain. To date, the project has digitised and made freely available more than 450 volumes, including such central resources as the Victoria County History of England, and the Journals of the Houses of Commons and Lords.

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