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Finding Historical Primary Sources: Getting Started

A guide to finding primary sources in history at the UC Berkeley Libraries


Primary sources were either created during the time period being studied or were created at a later date by a participant in the events being studied (as in the case of memoirs).  They reflect the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer.  Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to what actually happened during an historical event or time period

A secondary source is a work that interprets or analyzes an historical event or phenomenon.  It is generally at least one step removed from the event is often based on primary sources.  Examples include:  scholarly or popular books and articles, reference books, and textbooks.

After you've found your primary sources, learn to analyze them using The Bancroft Library's Primary Source Analysis Exercises.


Instructions to all persons of Japanese ancestry... poster


Where are Primary Sources at UCB?

Primary sources on campus may be in their original format; examples might include:

Some primary sources have been reproduced in another format, for instance:

Online primary sources may be found via free web sites as well as via Library databases.

Primary sources may be physically located in any of a number of UC Berkeley Libraries, or they may be available online.

Archives are collections of original unpublished, historical and contemporary material – in other words, collections of primary sources.  Before you go to any archival collection on campus you can save time and effort if you first:

  • Note the hours of each location.   Explore the library's web site and any special use conditions that may apply (registration, lockers, appointments, materials that need to be recalled from storage, restrictions on duplication, etc.)
  • Search the discovery tool for the 10 UC libraries:  UC Library Search (guide)  to find the titles and call numbers of specific items.
  • If you need to use manuscript collections, look to see if the collection has a finding aid.  Some finding aids list the contents of collections, box by box, folder by folder; others are less detailed.  Some finding aids are available online via the Online Archive of California  (the primary source itself may or may not be available online).
  • For more information about using archives (the organizations that collect manuscript collections) please see The Bancroft Library's Introduction to primary source research.

Ask for assistance (24/7 chat, appointments, etc.) at any time!

Title Page, Elizabeth Lew oral history



To Know Before You Search


Disabled Students Program photographs



Think about what types of primary sources might have been produced that would be relevant to your topic; think also about which persons or organizations might have produced materials. Some possible types of sources:

Books Photographs and images
Magazine and newspaper articles Cartoons and advertisements
Diaries and journals Movies, videos, DVDs
Memoirs and autobiographies Audio recordings
Interviews Public opinion polls
Letters Fiction
Speeches Research data and statistics
Documents produced by organizations Documents produced by government agencies, including congressional hearings and census records

Finding Background Information

Gather the information you have about your topic and consider what you still need to know before you start researching.  You can use this information in searching for primary sources.

  • Dates
  • Places
  • Names of persons involved
  • Names of organizations, government agencies, societies, etc.

Many users go to Wikipedia for background information, but the Library also provides reference works and secondary sources to help you find background information on your topic.  You may find reference sources by:

  • browsing the reference collection at the appropriate campus library
  • searching by the appropriate subject headings and adding additional subject terms such as:  encyclopedias, dictionaries, bibliographies. Examples:  
    • Indians of north america encyclopedias
    • women diaries bibliography

Visiting the Bancroft Library

Bancroft Library interiorThe Bancroft Library is one of the treasures of the campus, and one of the world's great libraries for the history of the American West and Mexico.

Some Bancroft materials are available online via Calisphere, which also includes primary sources from many other California libraries and museums. Bancroft also maintains additional digital resources.


Before you go:

Be prepared! Read secondary sources and know something about your topic.

Register as a researcher. Registration is free and takes just a few minutes using the Aeon online registration form to register in advance. For more information, see the Aeon guide.

In UC Library Search you can narrow your search to UC Berkeley special collections and archives. As you type your search, options to search different parts of the Library system appear. Narrowing your search this way is also possible in Advanced Search.

search box

Materials must be requested using Aeon. You must have an Aeon account to request materials. It is recommended that you request your materials in advance of your visit and to submit your requests at least one week prior to your visit to Bancroft.  For more information please visit the Aeon guide.

If the UC Library Search record mentions a finding aid (an index) to a manuscript collection, you should use it to help you find what you need in the collection.  If the finding aid is online, there will be a link from the catalog record.  Many of the finding aids that are not online are shelved near the Registration Desk at the Bancroft Library. You can also search for Bancroft finding aids in the Online Archive of California.

Before you go, plan your visit (and bring a quarter for a locker).


During your visit:

  1. Store your belongings in the lockers provided, located on the right-hand side of the east entrance. Pass the security guard station and proceed up one level by stairs or elevator to the Reading Room and Seminar Rooms (3rd floor).
  2. Check in at the Registration Desk, located on the left-hand side of the entrance to the Reference Center. You will need a photo ID.
  3. Go to the Circulation Desk, where you will be assigned a seat and can request the materials you pre-ordered.  
  4. For research-related questions, ask for assistance at the Reference Desk.


How to Get to the Bancroft Library

Check the current hours for the Bancroft Library.  For more information, see the Aeon guide.

The Bancroft Library is on the second floor of Doe, on the east side (the side closest to the Campanile). See a floor plan of Doe Library 2nd floor (pdf).