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Primary Sources

This guide is to help users to identify, locate, and use primary sources in their research.

Digitized Primary Sources

DBook Cover with Arabic Text.igitization has made it possible for libraries, archives, historical societies, museums and individuals to easily share their collections with the world.  Researchers today have unprecedented access to images of primary source materials with descriptive metadata that, in the pre-digital age, were available only to those who could visit a collection in person.

There are many different types of digital collections online, both freely available on the web, and via subscription databases available through libraries. 

Digital collections online include:

Databases at NYU Libraries

Primary sources may be found in the following databases: 

Check the Databases by Subject page to find digitized primary sources on your topic.

Digitized books and serials on the Web

Some sites, such as the Marxists Internet Archive, AMDOCS Documents for the Study of American History, and the Avalon Project:  Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy, provide transcriptions of documents.

Highlights from a library's holdings

One-of-a-kind resources

Like the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, a fully searchable database containing a wealth of information on the voyages, the captives, and the places from which slave ships sailed and landed.  It contains maps, a timeline, images, and essays that place the data in context.  There are reams of statistics in tables, timelines, and maps, and researchers can search the data and create custom xy graphs, bar graphs, and pie-charts.  This online database and the accompanying printed Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade are the "culmination of several decades of independent and collaborative research." 

Regionally-oriented digital projects

Such as: 

Complete collections

Often with transcriptions of documents and searchable databases.  Examples of freely available collections include:

Museums also offer online editions of their collections.  See the Louvre's Atlas database, which includes all the works exhibited in the museum, ca. 30,000 items.

One category of digitized texts on the web is early printed books.  The German blog Archivalia maintains a comprehensive list of digital libraries of Pre-1800 Printed Books in Western Languages.

Complete runs of newspapers and journals

Both scanned in PDF (and showing illustrations), and full text.  The vast majority of full text newspapers and journals online are found within subscription databases made available through commercial vendors in libraries, but there are also some stellar free resources, such as: 

Government documents

Including books, pamphlets, reports, statistics, serials, maps, and other items published by local, state, and federal government agencies represent a rich source of information for researchers on a vast range of topics.  Much of the information is available online. 

Turning the Pages

Developed by the British Library, Turning the Pages allows you to virtually turn the pages of treasured books. You can magnify details, read or listen to expert commentary on each page, and store or share your own notes.

The British Library offers 14 masterpieces from its collections including Mozart's musical diary, Ramayana, India's great epic in 17th-century paintings, and a selection of sketches from Leonardo da VInci.

Notable Sources Online

Vast collections of digital resources are available online, both within subscription databases and via freely available websites.  Large public and university libraries are particularly good sources. 

Notable sources include:

Finding Digital Collections Online

Search Tip: 

Search Google with your subject terms and the keywords "digital collections" or "digital library" to find digital collections.

Archives Unbound

This subscription database contains topically-focused digital collections of historical documents that support the research in a broad range of subjects.

Topics span Witchcraft to World War II to twentieth-century political history.