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Global Studies 102 & 210: Primary Sources


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


To Know Before You Search

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 governments

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.

Reference works and secondary sources can 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

Searching Article Databases for Primary Sources

To find magazine, journal or newspaper articles: use an article database. Article databases allow you to search for articles by topic, author, etc. Some (not all) article databases link to the full text of articles.

Primary Source Databases at UCB Library

Look carefully at the description of each database. Note:

  • what years of publication are included
  • what types of materials are included
  • does the database cover a particular academic discipline (such as History) or whether it is interdisciplinary

In some article databases you may click on the                              button, which will help you locate the full text of the article online or the physical location of the journal or newspaper on campus.

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



Sample Primary Source Databases

Apartheid South Africa, 1948-1980. Makes available British government files from various Foreign Offices spanning the period 1948 to 1980. Includes letters, diplomatic dispatches, reports, trial papers, activist biographies and first-hand accounts.

Confidential Print: Africa, 1834-1966. Full-text of reports, dispatches, correspondence, political summaries, economic analyses, and maps from the United Kingdom's Colonial, Dominion and Foreign Offices relating to Africa, the Americas, and the Middle East.

Confidential Print: Latin America, 1833-1969.  Digitized collection of The Confidential Print series, issued by the UK Foreign and Colonial Offices related to South and Central America

Confidential Print: Middle East. Digitized collection of The Confidential Print series, issued by the UK Foreign and Colonial Offices covering the Middle East, c. 1839 to 1969, taking in the countries of the Arabian peninsula, the Levant, Iraq, Turkey and many of the former Ottoman empire.

Confidential U.S. State Department Central Files, 1960-1969, Africa and the Middle East. Declassified materials from U.S. diplomats in Africa and the Middle East. 

Digital National Security Archive (DNSA). Indexes declassified documents spanning fifty years of US national security policy.  

East India Company Archives. Digital archive of the India Office Records on the East India Company from its inception until it dissolution. 

House of Commons Parliamentary Papers. Acess to thousands of 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st century Parliamentary Papers of Great Britain.

India, Raj and Empire. Manuscript collections of the National Library of Scotland relating to South Asian history between 1615 and 1947 on India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Malaysia, and Singapore.

Public Hearings of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment. Testimony and documents from individuals involved in the Japanese American Internment during World War II.

U.S. Declassified Documents Online. Documents declassified via the Freedom of Information Act and regular declassification requests.

World Scholar: Latin America and the Caribbean. A comprehensive range of contemporary and historical documents for the region, providing research across the humanities, both for current and historical Latin America and the Caribbean.