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Finding and Using Primary Sources: Books & Ebooks

A guide on defining, finding, and using primary resources in your research


Suggested Search Terms for Finding Primary Source Books

Adapted from this DePaul University guide, here are some useful search terms that will help you find books that can serve as primary sources in your research.

  • Charters
  • Correspondence
  • Diaries
  • Early works to 1800
  • Interviews
  • Letters
  • Manuscripts
  • Maps
  • Oratory
  • Pamphlets
  • Personal narratives
  • Photographs
  • Sources
  • Speeches

Online Resources for Primary Source Books

This list contains a number of useful online resources for finding books that can serve as primary resources. These resources are particularly helpful for finding books published before 1926, the public domain cutoff date as of 2021.

  • Google Books -- contains many complete public domain works, as well as excerpts of more recently published books.
  • HathiTrust -- collaborative repository of books collected from university libraries, Google Books, and the Internet Archive. Be sure to log in with your NetID for full access.
  • Open Library -- operated by the Internet Archive.
  • Project Gutenberg -- home to over 60,000 public domain ebooks.

Examples of Books at Duke that Can Serve as Primary Sources

Remember that books and ebooks can serve as either primary or secondary sources, depending on how you use them. Below is a list of some books held by Duke that can serve as primary sources (and also, potentially, as secondary sources). You'll notice that each of them uses at least one of the search terms suggested in the box to the left.


The Diaries of Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii, 1885-1900, edited by David W. Forbes (2019). Uses search term "diaries."

Speeches on the Nigerian Civil War: A Historical Documentation, edited by Onianwa Oluchukwu Ignatus (2019). Uses search term "speeches"

Women Philosophers of Eighteenth-Century England: Selected Correspondence, edited by Jacqueline Bond (2020). Uses search term "correspondence"

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Librarians are available from 9am to 12am most days to help you with your research. You can reach us in person, via chat, phone, or email.