Search Strategies

Given the great variety of discovery tools for primary sources, it is probably unsurprising that there is no single, one-size-fits all strategy for searching for primary sources. The search strategies you use should be tailored to your research topic and to particular discovery tools.

 Jonathan Edwards manuscript notebook
Efficacious Grace, three notebooks, notebook 2 of 3. Jonathan Edwards Collection. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Catalog Search Strategies

If you are looking for primary sources in electronic catalogs like Orbis and Quicksearch, certain keywords will help you. Some words that are particularly useful include:

  • correspondence
  • pamphlets
  • sources
  • diaries
  • personal narratives
  • speeches
  • interviews
  • oral history / oral histories / oral narratives
  • documents
  • archives
  • microfilm

Subject heading searches often return more comprehensive results than keyword searches. The Library of Congress creates subject headings that most libraries borrow, but they might not obviously come to mind. For example the subject term for the Vietnam War includes the dates: Vietnam War, 1961-1975. To find relevant subject headings, a researcher should run a keyword search to find a trusted source in the catalog, then look at the subject headings listed at the bottom of the record.

A search that combines primary source keywords with subject headings will likely bring back relevant material.  For example one could search Vietnam War, 1961-1975 AND personal narratives to find memoirs or firsthand accounts of soldiers who fought in the war. These types of searches can be made in the simple search bar, but our catalogs have advanced search features that allow researchers to get very specific.  For example, a user can search Vietnam War, 1961-1975 AND personal narratives and ask the catalog to limit results to those written from 1970-1975 and records in electronic form.

etching of skinning a snake and Arrowauka Nation female
Prospects of Empire Exhibit catalogue  cover. Lewis Walpole Library.

Database search strategies

In many primary source databases, you will have the opportunity to search the full text of documents. Think about the language that would have been used during that time period and in that cultural context, and search for relevant words, names, or phrases.

Photograph of title page of The Federalist (1788)
Title page of The Federalist (1788). Photograph taken by Mike Widener.

Citation tracing as a search strategy

One good way to discover primary sources relevant to your research question or topic is to check the citations and bibliographies in books, articles, and dissertations related to your project. Whether citations appear as endnotes or footnotes, they can be very helpful in leading you to primary sources found in archives, as publications, on microfilm, and online.

Bibliographies in books and dissertations often separate out lists of the primary or archival sources consulted, and if you are lucky, you might find a bibliographic essay at the end of a book or dissertation that not only identifies primary source materials but also describes the type and quality of information they contain.

If you ever have trouble deciphering citations, librarians and archivists can help!