HIST 3100 Historian's Craft: Primary Source Databases

General Information

Primary sources are documents, artifacts, and other items created during the time period being studied. Common primary sources include diaries, photographs, interviews, and newspaper articles. However, what counts as a primary source depends on the research question you're asking: while textbooks are largely considered to be secondary sources, an American history textbook published in the 1950s could be a primary source used to investigate what American children were taught about slavery during the Jim Crow era.

Marriott Library Digital Library

The Marriott Library offers access to primary sources in a variety of ways. While students and other researchers are usually encouraged to visit Special Collections to access archival collections, rare books, and other resources in person, the coronavirus pandemic has made that difficult or impossible in many cases. Luckily, many resources have been digitized and are available to view in the Digital Library, including books and pamphlets advocating for and against the American Revolution, pioneer diaries, photographs, and oral histories.

You can search for keywords, authors, titles, and other terms in the Digital Library on your own, or you can contact a member of Special Collections for help locating digitized materials. Note that the Digital Library search engine doesn't work like Google! If you type in "dog" but the resource only mentions "canines," you won't find what you're looking for. Try out synonyms and alternate phrasings to be sure you're finding all the relevant results.


Newspapers can show us how people reacted to historical events, artistic works, and other things in real time. Many newspapers, both from Utah and across the country, have been digitized and are available online.

  • Utah Digital Newspapers (https://digitalnewspapers.org/) currently contains over 3.5 million pages from almost 200 Utah newspapers. You can perform a keyword search of the database or browse for specific newspapers by county and title. 
  • Chronicling America (https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/) is a Library of Congress program that has digitized over 17 million pages from over 3,000 American newspapers published between 1789 and 1963. You can perform a keyword search of the entire repository or browse papers by state, language, or ethnic group. 

Librarian Robert Behra has an excellent guide on locating and using newspapers for research. Other newspaper databases, including ones that index and digitize international papers, can be found here

Other Primary Source Databases

The Marriott Library subscribes to many primary source databases. Here are some you might find particularly useful.

Mass Observation Online [info] [direct link]

This database provides access to almost 400,000 papers and documents from the Mass Observation Archive, dating primarily from 1937-1949 with some materials from the 1950s and 1960s. Mass-Observation was a British social research project that recruited about 500 untrained volunteers to write diaries, reply to questionnaires ("directives"), and record the behaviors and conversations of their neighbors and coworkers. While the project provided an incredible window into the social and cultural history of the UK during this time, it was also criticized as an invasion of privacy. You can search the archive using keywords, browse by material type, or locate diarists on an interactive map.

American West Collection [info] [direct link]

This database draws sources from the Newberry Library, a major independent research institution in Chicago. The grouping includes manuscripts, maps, and rare books with other printed material from the Everett D. Graff Collection of Western Americana. With a scope from 1718-1968, the documents and volumes provide perspective into Western expansion, frontier life, and the transformation of the landscape. Issues related to cultural interaction and conflict, economic and technological development, environmental change, and urban growth are visible in the wide range of available media, from gold rush diaries to wanted posters. The papers and personal accounts of early explorers and pioneers, including such well known figures as John James Audubon, are included. It is possible to search by document type or region, or to view a map gallery or visualized data on a number of topics.

Overland Journeys [info] [direct link]

Overland Journeys: Travels in the West, 1800-1880 provides researchers with access to printed books and historical newspapers related to the 2,000 mile journey across the West. Generally departing from Missouri or Iowa, groups of travelers destined for Utah, California, or Oregon might have chosen to travel using wagons, coaches, or handcarts before the establishment of the railroad in 1869. The 70,000 images contained in this database include personal narratives, descriptions of encounters with indigenous and other emigrating groups, and guides to the routes and features of the landscape. The sources, digitized from microfilmed originals, can be searched and viewed as images or as plain text (OCR).  Results can be filtered by features such as date, language, and media type. 

Archives of Human Sexuality & Identity [info] [direct link]

This database focuses on LGBTQ history and culture since 1940, and consists of twenty collections from such institutions as the New York Public Library, the London School of Economics, and the National Institutes of Health. With a page count approaching 1.5 million scanned images, this resource provides a vital glimpse into organizations founded by and for LGBTQ individuals. Records of activist organizations and notable publications depict communities across a range of ethnicities, political viewpoints, and geographical locations. Multiple collections also explore the medical and policy implications of the AIDS epidemic as both an American and a global crisis. The manuscripts, publications, and media can be searched and filtered, or can be explored through visualization tools within the application.

Women's Studies Archive [info] [direct link]

The Women's Studies Archive gathers records and publications to chart the evolution of feminism across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (1775-1998). The collection of women's voices include creative and analytical explorations of issues such as suffrage, birth control, activism, civil rights, and labor. The archives of women's organizations and publications include manuscripts, monographs, photographs, and periodicals, all of which can be searched and filtered by content, date, medium, or originating collection. Like other Gale databases, this resource offers a term frequency tool which can provide visualizations of the number of times a particular concept, name, or word appears in the corpus over time.


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