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History 303 - Finding Primary Sources in Archives

Help with archival research for HIST303

Primary Sources Online - Overview

Primary sources are available online:

  • Archives digitizing their records and upload them to their online collections
    • An example: Cal Poly Special Collections and Archives Online Archive
  • Regional and national archives aggregators can be used to search many archives at once. 
    • An example: Calisphere, the online database where all California cultural organizations can share their digitized resources
  • Primary sources can be shared on websites, in online exhibits, or anywhere on the web. You can look at the credit line to learn where the image is from. If it is from an archive, they will likely have more materials on their online collections
  • Libraries also subscribe to library databases, which can be used by anyone in the library or to any current Cal Poly students, faculty, and staff.

Primary Sources - California History - Selected


University of California’s free gateway to a world of primary sources that reveal the diverse history and culture of California and its role in national and world history. A variety of digitized primary sources are collected into sets that support the California Content Standards for use in K-12 classrooms. Themed collections are specifically designed to help educators quickly find primary sources for classroom use, based on time periods and themes.

Online Archive of California

Digital information resource that facilitates and provides access to primary source materials held in institutions across California.

California Digital Newspaper Collection

Freely accessible and searchable repository of digitized California newspapers from 1846 to the present.

Digital Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps

Digitized historic maps of US cities and towns. Cal Poly users have access to a subscription database of California Sanborn maps, which are frequently used for historical research and preservation and restoration efforts.

Primary Sources - US History - Selected

Primary source and archival materials covering topics such as art and architecture, performing arts, technology, and applied sciences.

Search and view newspapers from 1880-1922 and find information about American newspapers published from 1960 - present.

Single point of access to millions of items from libraries, archives, and museums around the United States. Includes "primary source sets" by topic or event, which are a good place to begin looking for primary sources by topic. 

Free public access to collections of digitized materials, including websites, music, moving images, and nearly three million public-domain books.

Search thousands of documents related to historical and current U.S. presidencies, such as speeches, official papers, executive orders, proclamations, news conferences, and press briefings. Contains all major publications of the U.S. Office of the President, including: Public Papers of the President, Inaugural Addresses, Executive Orders, Signing Statements, and other information such as radio addresses, party platforms, videos of debates, and popularity polling data. This project was developed by two political science professors at UCSB.
Digitized images including photographs, documents, newspaper pages, political cartoons, works of art, diaries, transcribed oral histories, advertising, and other unique cultural artifacts that reveal the diverse history and culture of California and its role in national and world history.
The Cornell University Library Making of America Collection is a digital library of primary sources in American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction. The collection is particularly strong in the subject areas of education, psychology, American history, sociology, religion, and science and technology. This site provides access to 267 monograph volumes and over 100,000 journal articles with 19th century imprints. The project represents a major collaborative endeavor in preservation and electronic access to historical texts.
A thematically-related digital library documenting American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction located at the University of Michigan. (MOA) [19th century]. Access to 9,500 books and almost 2500 digitized issues of 12 journals published in the 19th century. The collection is particularly strong in the areas of education, psychology, American history, sociology, religion, and science and technology. Making of America is a collaboration between the libraries of Cornell University and the University of Michigan to document American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction by drawing upon unique primary materials held at each institution. 

A gateway to primary source materials relating to the history and culture of the United States. Includes a sampling of early American films, including works by the Edison Company, recordings of vaudeville and other popular entertainments, early animated films; recordings of early 20th Century presidents, and scenes of American work and leisure.

The Library’s world-renowned research collections feature more than 46 million items, from a copy of the Declaration of Independence to Maya Angelou’s papers. Over 800,000 of these items are digitized and available to researchers, from the Green Books to James Madison's papers.

Primary Sources Worldwide - by region or language


Primary Source Databases - Library subscriptions

In addition to public online digitized archives, there are also databases that the library subscribes to, that gather primary sources on a topic or area of focus. The Kennedy Library purchases subscriptions to these databases for students and campus researchers.

You can explore the databases at the library's A-Z list of databases

The library regularly adds new and trial databases, so I recommend checking the list to see what has recently been added.

Examples of databases include:

  • Digital Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps
  • San Francisco Chronicle and San Luis Obispo Tribune Archives
  • ARTstor
  • Early English Books Online
  • Eighteenth Century Collections Online