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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.

Finding primary sources

Search catalogs

Many libraries have special collections among their holdings. You can use the same catalog you would use to search for books, magazines and media to search for primary source material. Many catalogs allow you to limit or filter your results by date, format or location. Filtering results will help your focus in on primary source material.

Use finding aids

A finding aid is an index of archival and manuscript collections. A finding aid can be a simple list of items, or a more complex document that puts materials in context by including information about the collection, such as a history or biographical note and a description of the arrangement of the collection. 

Many finding aids are online, though some are not, so its still a good idea to contact a librarian or curator before you visit. 

Browse digital collections

Many institutions have made primary source material available online. A portion of UMD Libraries' special collections are available using Digital Collections. Contact us to find out how to use copyrighted material in your research.

Finding Sources at UMD

Finding Primary Sources at UMD

The University of Maryland Libraries house most of its primary source material  in the Special Collections and University Archives in Hornbake Library.

Unlike the other material in the UMD Libraries, the primary sources in Hornbake Library do not circulate. This means you will need to use these materials at the library.

Some tools provide more information than others and many primary sources cannot be found online. Use a combination of these tools to locate primary sources, and visit us or email us at anytime for help identifying primary source material.

As you use these tools, make sure you check the location of the item before you request it. Consider requesting material in advance, so that the materials you want to use are ready for you when you arrive.


WorldCat searches for resources from around the world, including the University of Maryland. A basic search includes not just books, but ebooks, audiobooks, journal articles, videos and special collections and archival material (i.e. primary sources!). 

To more easily locate primary sources, use search filters on the left-hand sidebar: 

  • Library: Select "Maryland Room Collections, Hornbake Library"
  • Format: Select "Archival Material"
  • Year: Enter a date range 

Click the "Request from Special Collections" link under "Check Availability". 

Archival Collections 

Archival Collections home pageArchival Collections is a database that searches finding aids, or indexes, of archival and manuscript collections at Hornbake Library. Finding aids may be a simple list of folders in a box or a complex document that places material in context, including a history or biographical note and description of the arrangement of the collection. 

To locate relevant primary sources: 

  • Browse finding aids from the drop-down menus on the left
    • You can browse alphabetically, by subject, by Maryland geographic region, or by Collection Area
  • Use "Advanced Search" to search by keyword
  • Click "Abstract" to view a brief description of the collection
  • Click "Finding Aid" to view the entire finding aid
  • To request to see material, use the "Request from Special Collections" buttons within each record

Digital Collections

Digital Collections include digitized photographs and other documents from Special Collections and University Archives. Note that a small of portion of our records are digitized and available online, so if you don't find what you are looking for here, visit the Maryland Room.

To locate relevant primary sources: 

  • Collection or Subject Terms
  • keywords in the Search box at the top of the page. 

Note: Many images available via Digital Collections are under copyright and cannot be downloaded. Specific information can be found at the bottom of each Digital Collections item page.

Ask a librarian

Some of our collections do not have a catalog record or a finding aid. Librarians can help you find material for your research project and answer any questions.

Contact us.