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Research Using Primary Sources

This guide will clarify how to locate, access, and use primary sources, particularly at the University of Maryland.

Getting Started

What question will my research answer?

Determine what you want to know from the primary sources you examine.


My topic is women in sports.
My research question is "How were women portrayed in popular culture and media in the 1960s?

Use secondary sources to identify potential primary sources.

Secondary sources can help you find background information on your topic, such as:

  • Use general reference material, such as encyclopedias or Wikipedia
  • Search books, magazines, media and more using a library catalog
  • Search scholarly articles using library databases

Gather information that will be helpful when searching for primary sources:

  • Dates
  • Places
  • Names of persons involved
  • Names of organizations, government agencies, societies, etc.

Consider various types of primary sources.

What types of primary sources might have been produced that would be relevant to your topic? Which persons or organizations might have produced materials?

Possible formats include:

  • Books
  • Photographs, images
  • Magazines, newspapers
  • Advertisements
  • Diaries, journals
  • Movies, videos, DVDs
  • Memoirs, autobiographies
  • Audio recordings
  • Interviews
  • Letters
  • Speeches
  • Research data, statistics
  • Documents produced by organizations
  • Documents produced by government agencies

Identify where you can find relevant sources.

Consider where you would find the best sources based on the background information you have gathered:

  • Public library
  • University library
  • Special collections or archives
  • Government repository (like the National Archives or Library of Congress)
  • Historical society

Use a catalog, finding aid, or other online tools to find primary sources before you visit or contact staff for help locating relevant primary source material.