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Where Do I Start?: Finding Sources

Finding material at the library can sometimes be tricky. This page will guide you through the process of finding a source, whether that is primary or secondary, online or on the shelves.

What Are Primary Sources?

A primary source refers to original events - for example an artifact, a recording, or research data. They provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence regarding the topic under study, and are often created at the time under investigation. As such, memoirs, letters, posters, and religious texts are all great primary sources for a historian. Alternatively, for a scientist the original publication of new data, results and theories are important sources of primary material.

The value in using primary sources lies in their ability to reflect something first-hand, having not been interpreted by someone else. That is not to say a primary source cannot be biased - they are still often a reflection of their original creator's worldview (for example a diary).

Finding Primary Sources

How to find primary sources depends a lot on what type of source you need, and for what subject. Archives such as the American Heritage Center here on campus are a fantastic place to find a variety of primary sources. You can search for material at the AHC by following this link, or browse the collections here.

Many primary sources can be accessed through the UW Libraries website, such as our historical newspaper databases or the business and science databases publishing new research and reports. Find our full list of databases here. It is worth noting that articles and books available through a database are not in themselves a primary source, but they often contain valuable research and primary sources.

If you are unsure of where to start searching, it is a good idea to talk to your professor or the Liaison Librarian for your subject, as both are experienced in how to locate sources for your specific discipline. You may also want to try the relevant guide for your subject.


Finding primary and secondary sources by subject guide.


What Are Secondary Sources?

Secondary sources provide secondhand analysis of a subject or event, often including interpretations of primary sources. In contrast to primary sources, secondary sources tend to be written after an event has occurred. Common examples are books and articles.

Secondary sources can often provide a more rounded and in-depth understanding of a subject, presenting analysis and background information not typically available in a primary source. As such, they can expand and develop your knowledge by examining the context, causes and results of an event, artifact, or data. It is important to use secondary sources written by experts in their field, as their insights are more credible and can thus better support your own research.

Finding Secondary Sources

Searching the UW library catalog is a fast and simple way to find secondary sources. Use key words related to your subject, or the name of a prominent scholar in the field to find appropriate books.

Peer-reviewed articles are also great secondary sources. You can search for articles a database related to your subject. Explore UW's databases here.

Find Out More...

For more information on how to tell the difference between primary and secondary sources and how to find them, view this guide.

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