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Humanities I: Finding Primary Sources

How Do I Evaluate a Primary Source?

Use these tips from the National Archives DocsTeach:

  1. Meet the document.
  2. Observe its parts.
  3. Try to make sense of it.
  4. Use it as historical evidence.

Helpful Secondary Sources

Primary and Secondary Sources: What Are They?

Primary sources are the "raw stuff" of history, created or experienced during the time period being studied. 

  • Provide firsthand accounts, viewpoints, and evidence contemporary to the time.
  • Examples: photograph, diary, speech, map, newspaper article, video footage, legal document, etc.

Secondary sources analyze and interpret historical events, periods of time, or phenomena, and use primary sources to do so.

  • Review, critique, synthesize, and interpret information, usually written well after the fact. 
  • Examples: academic books, textbooks, encyclopedias, biographies, reviews, journal articles, museum exhibits, etc.

Finding Primary Sources

Explore the sections below to get started with your search for a primary source. The Digital Public Library of America is a great place to start. This list is robust, but not exhaustive! Depending on our topic you may want to search on your own for primary sources. Here are some tips:

  • Look for historical societies or museum websites specific to the geographic area you are studying.
  • Find a tribal website, which may have a history section.
  • In many cases librarians have already done the work for you! On Google, search for your topic + "libguide" and look at results from libraries and .edu web addresses. Here is an example of a search for sources that might be helpful if you were writing a story about the "true" story of Pocahontas. 

The Digital Public Library of America

The Digital Public Library of America includes over 40 million primary documents, photographs, and other primary sources from archives and libraries across the United States.

  • Search by keyword from the homepage. Use quotation marks to limit your search to specific terms (for example, searching for "Pequot War" will bring up more relevant resources than searching for Pequot War without quotation marks).
  • Browse the Primary Source Sets by using the dropdown menus located at the top center of the webpage.
  • If you find an item you are interested in, click on "View Full Item" to learn more about it from the owning institution.
  • To cite an item, click on "Cite this Item" on the right side to generate an MLA or Chicago citation. 


Primary Source Sets of interest: 


EnCompass: A Rhode Island History Digital Textbook is a project of the Rhode Island Historical Society and Providence College. There are a small number of curated primary sources, some related to Roger Williams and Rhode Island American Indian communities. 

Early Encounters

Modern & Other Topics

Material Culture

The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) contains extensive collections of clothing, objects, crafts, and material culture from many Native American communities.

Pequot basket. Date unknown. The National Museum of the American Indian.