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University at Buffalo Libraries

Primary Sources

What are "primary sources"? Generally, the term "primary sources" refers to original documents which provide first-hand observations about a time period or event.

Commonly-used primary sources include:
  • First-person accounts (autobiographies, diaries, interviews, letters, memoirs, speeches)
  • Official publications (court decisions, government documents, laws, official papers)
  • Popular publications (newspaper or magazine articles, as long as they were published at the same time as the time period or event being researched )
  • Scientific or research data (data sets, field notes, public opinion polls, research reports, survey results)

Note that the definition of "primary sources" varies among academic disciplines. For example, legal "primary source" materials refer only to cases, statutes and regulations; in art or literature, a "primary source" is the original work of art or literature, which secondary sources then analyze and critique.

How do I look for primary sources in the Catalog?

Some primary source materials can be found in the UB Libraries Catalog. Key words which indicate that materials might be primary sources include:

  • Correspondence
  • Diaries
  • Documentary history
  • Documents
  • Interviews
  • Letters
  • Oral histories
  • Personal narratives
  • Sources
  • Speeches

These keywords can be added to a catalog search. For example:

  • Civil War and documentary history
  • Thomas Wolfe and correspondence

In addition, the UB Libraries' Resources by Subject pages for United States History, World History, and World Civilizations suggest a number of starting points for online primary source research. Note: off-campus access to some of these electronic resources may be restricted to current UB students, faculty and staff.

Where can I find primary sources at UB?

Some of the Special Collections in the University Libraries include:

  • The University Archives owns a variety of primary sources relating to the history of Buffalo or the University at Buffalo.
  • The Poetry Collection contains over 100,000 volumes by every major and many minor poets writing in English. Recordings of poets reading from their own works, poets' notebooks, letters and manuscripts, and a wide variety of literary magazines are also included in this collection.
  • Archival Collections in the Music Library papers, photographs, audio, sheet music, manuscript scores, concert programs and other primary resources.
  • Morris L. Cohen Rare Book Collection and Law School Archives consists principally of seventeenth-through nineteenth-century English and American legal sources and historical materials by and about the UB Law School.
  • Robert L. Brown History of Medicine Collection includes more than 13,000 monographs from the nineteenth century with particular strengths in surgery, obstetrics/gynecology, dentistry, pharmacology, and oncology, as well as historical journal volumes. The collection also contains 500 pre-nineteenth century titles.

Last Update: June 2013