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History: Primary Sources: Primary Sources

Madson Area Technical College Libraries Research Guide to Finding Primary Sources for your history research


In constructing your search, remember that primary source materials use the language of the time period. For example, Gettysburg may be spelled Gettysburgh in newspaper articles of the 1860’s and groups of people may be referred to in terms that are no longer in use today.

For more information on getting started with writing your history paper, check out- Going to the Sources: A Guide to Historical Research and Writing by Anthony Brundage 907.2 B894.


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The Madson Area Technical College Library Catalog provides access to books, magazines, reference and reserve material, audio-visual resources (for example, DVDs), and selected web resources. Search by subject or keyword.

Most History books will be located in the 900’s.

To search the Library catalog for primary source materials, try adding one of the following subheadings to your search term or topic: diaries, personal narratives, documents, sources, letters, correspondence, oral history, pamphlets, interviews, speeches, or autobiography. For example: civil war and diaries.

To see what types of materials are available in the Madson Area Technical College libraries take a look at the selected bibliographies of primary source material under the next tab at the top of the page of this guide.

Quick search of the online catalog:

Wisconsin Historical Society Library

The Wisconsin Historical Society Library serves as the archives for the state of Wisconsin. The collection includes over 4 million published works relating to the history of North America. Making primary resources available is the mission of the Society Archives whose collection also includes unpublished works, maps, photographs, graphics, and audiovisual materials.

Primary Sources

Primary sources are firsthand accounts or records of events in history. These sources reflect the point of view of a participant or observer at a particular point of time. There are a wide range of primary source materials available for historical research. For example:

  • Magazines, newspapers, books, and pamphlets written and published during a particular time period
  • Diaries, letters, or papers usually written for personal reasons. Some of these may have been published later, usually after the writer’s death.
  • Reports and records such as census data or minutes of an organization
  • Autobiographies and memoirs often written long after the events took place and therefore, may be somewhat less reliable.
  • Photos, audio recordings, movies, buildings, and other physical objects may also reveal information about the time period and popular culture

Compilations of primary sources such as a book containing many short excerpts from primary sources are not as useful as the original sources themselves.

Source materials may have a bias or purpose which you should be aware of. For example, an article from a northern paper during the civil war will read much differently than an article from a southern paper. When reading primary sources, think about why the piece was written, when it was written, and what it tells us about the writer and the time period.


Many libraries and organizations are digitizing specialized collections and making them available online. From historical photographs to rare books, these collections contain a wealth of information and are readily accessible.

Remember to carefully evaluate the source of any information posted on the web and follow your instructor’s guidelines for recommended sources.

Websites for U.S. History

History Research Guides

Subject Guide

Library Research Databases


The Truax Library has a small collection of some historical backfiles of print magazines:

  • Look: 1963-10/71
  • Life: 1963-1972. 1985-5/00
  • Current History: 1970-1999
  • Foreign Affairs: 1970-
  • National Geographic: 1960-1969 1971-1978 1980 to present
  • Time: 1970- present
  • Vital Speeches of the Day: from 10/15/65-- (volumes 33 and 42 are missing) to Current year

Some other sources to check:

Primary Sources QR Code

qr code primary sources reaearch guide