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Vassar College

United States History



  • Most primary sources are in print or microfilm. There are some full-text electronic collections, but their relevance and usefulness depends on your topic. Other databases provide searchable indexes for material you will view in microfilm or print.
  • Look up primary sources mentioned in the notes and references of your secondary sources.
  • Search the library catalog for the names of individuals or organizations central to your research topic. When they appear as authors their writings are primary sources.
  • There are many high quality open access digital archives (aka websites) with collections of primary sources that may be relevant to your topic. It's always a good idea to confirm with your professor if a project is appropriate for you to consult for your research project.


    Center for Research Libraries has an extensive collection of unique sources you may borrow

    • Search CRL for Subject Headings on your topic, it can be more effective than keyword searching there.
    • Look up specific sources mentioned in references in CRL.
    • Include OCLC number in your ILL request

    Nothing Replaces Browsing the Library Shelves

    When you find a good book, look around the shelves in that area for more. You are guaranteed to find something browsing you would miss keyword searching the catalog.

    Explore tables of contents and indexes in books that catch your eye. 

    Let Subject Headings Guide You in the Library Catalog

    Speak the catalog's language - use Subject Heading vocabulary in your keyword searches. Click on Subject Heading links at the bottom of a catalog record to browse the collection for more materials in that subject. Subject Headings use a controlled vocabulary determined by the Library of Congress. Use specific subject heading language in your keyword searches to find primary sources.

    These keywords are Library of Congress Subject Heading vocabulary indicating primary sources:

    sources, letters, interviews, speeches, personal narratives, diaries, correspondence, sermons, notebooks, sketches, description and travel, treaties, pamphlets, biography (includes memoirs), newspapers, periodicals, pictorial works, art, architecture, portraits, caricatures and cartoons, cookery, decorative arts, furniture, material culture, guide books, maps, fiction, poetry, periodicals, newspapers, bibliography, early works to 1800

    example search: (united states women) AND (sources or correspondence)

    Search the Vassar Library Catalog:


    This is one research technique, but not a perfect system. Many wonderful sources at Vassar do not have Subject Headings indicating they are primary sources.

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