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Primary Sources: Home

A quick guide to introduce you to finding and accessing primary sources.

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.

What are 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.

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

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

What type of primary sources do you need?

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.

Finding sources

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. The finding online primary sources page introduces you to the library’s collections. Some archival collections are freely available online. The free resources pages gives you a starting point but is by no means an exhaustive list.

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 Collection department holds primary source material you can use.

Library Search Tips

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

  1. In the Catalogue or Articles + more click on Advanced Search
  2. Type in your search terms in the Any Field box e.g. travel
  3. 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:

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

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

What is a Secondary Source?

Secondary sources analyze primary sources, using primary source materials to answer research questions.  Secondary sources may analyze, criticize, interpret or summarize data from primary sources.

Examples of secondary sources:

  • books,
  • journal articles,
  • reviews of the literature.

Secondary sources may also be primary sources. For example if someone studies the nature of literary criticism in the 19th century then a literary critque from the 19th century becomes a primary resource.

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.

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.