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Primary Sources: Home

Online library support for primary source research

The University has access to an extensive range of online primary source materials. These contain digitised copies of documents, letters, books, photographs and other primary sources.

This libguide will help you identify the best databases for your research.

Don't forget that we also have a wide range of physical primary source materials located on campus, both in the library and in the archives and special collections.

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. 

Visit the Archives and Special Collections LibGuide for more information.

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

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

Local collections

Primary sources

A general definition of a primary source is first-hand evidence of an event or experience. This evidence can be in the form of the written word, images, artefacts, film or sound recordings, and will have been created at some point during the lifetime of the person involved.

Primary sources will vary depending upon what is being studied. 

The majority of our primary source databases contain evidence in the form of text or image based materials. 

Examples of primary sources are:

  • Books and manuscripts
  • Ephemera (posters, invites, greetings cards, receipts, handbills etc.)
  • Film and video, images, photographs and original artwork
  • Interviews and speeches
  • Maps
  • Pamphlets, magazines and newsletters
  • Newspapers, news sheets and newsbooks
  • Parliamentary, legal and official documents (Government publications, census data, court cases, business records etc.)
  • Personal writings (memoirs, letters etc.)
  • Reports and grey literature

Secondary sources are usually created after an event by someone who was not a firsthand witness to something. The authors or creators of secondary material may use a number of primary sources to analyse, criticise, interpret or provide a summary of an event or topic. Textbooks are usually secondary sources.

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.

Examples of secondary sources include:

  • books
  • journal articles
  • reviews of literature
  • biographies

You can use Library Search to find books and journal articles written during particular  time periods, e.g. what was written about travel during the nineteenth century:

Go to Library Search.

  • In the Catalogue or Articles + more tab, click on Advanced Search
  • Type in your search terms next to the Keyword option e.g. travel
  • In the year boxes, enter the year or range of years 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 Keyword box e.g. Churchill
  • If not, enter the topic of interest e.g. Spanish Civil War
  • In the next Keyword field 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.

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

To explore these resources use the A-Z database list. Filter the database type field to Primary Source to see the full list. Add a subject i.e. History as a filter to refine the list. You can also search for Archives and further refine by subject.


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

You may need to make research trips to access physical material as well. Don't forget the Library's Special Collections holds primary source material you can use, and there are other local collections you can explore.

What type of primary source do you need?

There are so many online primary source collections it can be difficult to know where to start. Defining your parameters before you start searching can help you identify the most relevant databases to search.

Ask yourself the following:

  • What date period are you interested in?
  • What is the geographical location?
  • Are you looking for a specific format or type of content?
  • Is there a particular theme you are researching?

​Click on the links below to find primary sources that have been sorted into various categories.


Click here to find information on using archival news sources for research.

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