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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.

How do I cite a Primary Source?

General Guidelines

By carefully documenting your sources, you acknowledge intellectual debts and provide readers with information about the materials you consulted during your research. Methods for citing primary sources (e.g., archival and manuscript collections) differ from those for published works. The discipline in which you are writing and class requirements will determine the citation system you should use.

Typical elements of a citation include: document title, document date, location information, collection title, collection number, and repository name.  For primary sources published online, a citation would include: the author, document title or a description, document date, title of the website, reference URL, and date accessed. Elements of a citation are usually listed from the most specific to the most general. 

Where to Find Citation Elements

The Finding Aid is the best place to find the information you need to cite a primary source. Below are examples from a finding aid that show where you can locate this information.

Take a look at the John H Alexander finding aid. In the top left corner of the record there is a citation button that will generate a citation for the collection you are viewing. You may need to slightly reformat this automatically generate citation, based upon the style guide your project requires. 

Repository Name:  In this finding aid, this information (the name of the collecting institution) is simply listed under "Repository". 

Collection Number: Sometimes called the acquisition number, this is located just below title and author/creator in this finding aid.

Document Title: The Finding Aid only lists the names of folders, not the individual names of every item contained within each folder. If the document you want to cite has a title on it, like the name of a pamphlet, use that as the title in your citation. If it does not, give it a title that accurately describes the item. For example, if I were citing a letter in folder 1, I could title it, [Letter to J.J. Albert dated May 5, 1831]. If you do this, put the title in brackets to indicate that you created the title. 

Document Date: Look at the title of the Series, or the folder title. Sometimes, as in the example above, the date is a range. To find the specific date, look at the specific document you wish to cite. 

Location Information: Note the series, sub-series, or folder number the document is located in. In this example, it is "John H. Alexander Papers, Series 1: Correspondence, 1831-1848, Folder 1)

Preferred Citation: In this case, SCUA has provided a preferred citation format for you! It also provided a unique identifier to link to the finding aid, which should be included in your citation. 

Citation Styles

Once you have gathered this information, refer to the style handbook for the citation format you will be using (MLA, Chicago, APA). Citation format will differ not only by the style you use, but the format of the record itself, i.e. whether it is a letter, pamphlet, book, government document, etc. 

The Library of Congress gives examples of how to cite different types of primary sources in these three styles. And if in doubt, you can always ask a librarian how best to cite the document you need.

Below is the letter we used as an example from the John H. Alexander collection cited in MLA, Chicago, and APA. 


Alexander, John H. [Letter to J.J. Albert dated May 5, 1831]. 1831. "John H. Alexander Papers". Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries, College Park.


Alexander, John H. (1831). [Letter to J.J. Albert dated May 5, 1831]"John H. Alexander Papers". Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries, College Park, MD


John H. Alexander to J.J. Albert, 5 May 1831, Box 1, Folder 1, John H. Alexander Papers, Special John M. Sell to William Sell, 3 November 1861, Box 1, Folder 3, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries, College Park.