The Best Places to Find Digitized Primary Sources

Hello – welcome back to my blog! Today I am going to tell you about my favorite places to find digitized primary sources. This article will be helpful for professional researchers, historians, and students needing to find evidence for their projects. 

Finding primary sources can be hard to begin with, but now that most archives are either closed or restricted it has become even more difficult… I know this firsthand. I finished and defended my Master’s Thesis in Summer 2020 and couldn’t go anywhere. So these are some of the resources that I used and some that I have found working as a research assistant.

Also, feel free to email me with other sources and I will add them to this list! 

*Disclaimer: There are no paid ads in this article. I am only talking about the sources that I have personally used and/or paid to use myself. 

  1. archive.org 

This website is free and has saved my life on multiple occasions. They have digitized hundreds of thousands of primary source documents that you can look at. All you have to do is sign up for a free account. Then you are able to look at documents or “check them out” for two weeks much like a public library. 

They have also digitized thousands of secondary sources that are great for literature reviews and historiographical essays.

2. JSTOR

JSTOR has a free version of their website – all you have to do is make an account. Then there’s a workspace where you can save articles in folders for different projects. Unfortunately, you can’t access JSTOR’s entire collection, but you can access a ton of stuff. 

Students or faculty at colleges/universities will have access to more articles than people with only the free account.

Tip: If you are a student or faculty member at a university and can’t find the article you need, email your library on campus. They will often have an interlibrary loan or request section where they can purchase the article for you and send it your way. Save yourself time and money by using the library resources! 

3. Research Library Databases

Library databases are so helpful. Many libraries have or are working on digitizing their primary sources which makes their special collections more readily available for research. 

If the collection itself hasn’t been digitized many libraries have at least made their Finding Aids available online. 

For example, the Newberry Library has digitized thousands of documents! (https://www.newberry.org)

4. Digital Archives

Digital archives were huge for me when I was finishing my thesis. Many state historical societies in the US have digitized their holdings or at least made the Finding Aids available online. 

Many state archives might be wiling to scan the pieces of the collection you need for a small fee. Check out their website to see the rate or email the archivist to ask! I’ve communicated with many kind archivists and they are so helpful! 

Tip: ALWAYS BE NICE to the archivist!!!

5. Museum Collections

Digital museum collections are another great place to find primary sources. You can look at the items in their collections or you can check out their online exhibits. Most museums only have enough space to display 10% of their physical collection so digital catalogs allow them to display more items!

Many museums have digitized more and more of their collections due to the pandemic. This has made museum exhibits more widely available to larger audiences which means more people can view and love the collections. How cool is that!

6. Public Library Databases

Public libraries are another great place to find primary sources. Public libraries often have subscriptions to online databases which allow you to do primary source research. 

You can also do interlibrary loans through the public library. 

Tip: Be KIND to the librarians that you communicate with online or over the phone. They might find extra materials and send them your way. I remember one librarian doing this for me and it made a huge difference in my research paper. Thank a librarian today!

7. SCRIBD

SCRIBD is a paid subscription service that I personally use for my research. They have digitized several primary source documents that you can view after paying a monthly fee. 

SCRIBD also has digitized secondary sources as well. Some are PDFS, some are digitized books, and others are audiobooks. Listening to secondary sources while running or doing chores has saved me so much time 🙂

8. ancestry.com or other genealogical sites

Personally, I use ancestry.com for my research. This is another source that you have to pay to access, but they have different prices depending on what kind of sources you need. I always find cool things when I look on Ancestry. For example, there are census records, military records, pictures, draft cards, directories, yearbooks and more! Check it out!

9. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov

This database is run by the Library of Congress (another awesome database) and provides free access to newspaper across the United States. There are local, regional, and national newspapers in this databases. You can clip articles or see whole pages as PDFs. 

10. newspapers.com

This is another newspaper database, but it is a paid subscription. Personally, I think this is the easiest newspaper database to navigate. So it use this one the most! Most of my newspaper clippings on my instagram posts come from this website. 

This list will be updated as I find new databases! So I hope this becomes a resource that is really helpful for you! Thanks for reading!

I’ll talk to ya soon! 🙂

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