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Finding Primary Sources and Archival Materials Online

Finding Primary Sources - Introduction

Primary sources are found in a range of places, including:

  • in archives and cultural repositories
  • in the community, with families and organizations who created them
  • reproduced in books and publications
  • digitized and online

Cultural repositories with historic records and archives have been digitizing primary sources and sharing them online for decades. What is online usually represents a small selection of the repository's records. If you find primary sources online, you can trace the materials back to their repository and see what additional materials are available. 

When you are starting your search for primary sources online, these are some things to consider:

  • Who may have created materials or collected materials on this topic? Where might their records live now?
  • What formats of materials may have been created about this topic? (letters, objects, published work, newspaper articles, maps, architectural drawings, oral histories, interviews, photographs, etc)

With this information, you can begin searching online to find where these materials currently live. Archives and cultural repositories often have collecting scopes that guide their collections. They might gather materials on a particular topic, on a geographic location, on a particular organization or community. Other tips include checking citations in published research on the topic. Which archives are researchers and scholars citing?

Where are primary sources online?

Primary sources are available online in two different ways:

  • freely available on the Internet from cultural institutions (examples: Cal Poly's Online Archive, Calisphere, Digital Public Library of America, American Memory from the Library of Congress, Densho, South Asian American Digital Archive). 
  • available via library databases (example: Tribune Archives, Historical Sanborn Maps) that may be used from any computer with access to the campus network. Off-campus access is limited to Cal Poly students, faculty, and staff. These are subscription databases that the library staff identify in collaboration with the community.

Primary sources are usually found in digital collections. Types of digital collections include:

Searching online - getting started

There are four main databases to search for archival collection records: WorldCat, ArchiveGrid, Social Networks and Archival Context Project (SNAC), and Archive Finder. These overlap but each contains unique archival materials. 

While these four sources contain a large number of archival collection records, many are not included. In this guide there are several additional sources, including:

  • Numerous regional and state-level databases. Useful for when you have a geographic focus or approach for your search, or if your topic is based in a geographical area.
  • Some archives repositories do not participate in the above databases and only post records to their own website. You may already know of the repository, or there are ways to search Google to located archival collections when they do not appear in the databases above. 
  • There are numerous subject-based guides compiled by specialists

Subscription primary source databases available at Kennedy Library

While many archives have digitized archival materials available for public free access online (like at Cal Poly's Special Collections and Archives), sometimes, archives materials are only available online through paid subscription. Kennedy Library has primary source databases paid for by the library and your tuition. Access to these resources are limited to students, faculty, and staff at Cal Poly, or onsite at the library. 

You can browse and search these subscription databases through the library's list of databases

A guided research notebook

We've developed a form to walk you through the research process

We based this form on our own process of research. Research is an iterative process and can take a lot of time, and you might not find what you are looking for. Often when we are searching, we have to reconsider our research questions based on what materials we discover.