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Course & Subject Guides

Finding Primary Sources @ Pitt: Finding Primary Sources

Learn to distinguish between primary and secondary sources; learn strategies for finding primary sources.

Tools for Finding Primary Sources

Library Catalogs

  • Search PittCat to find primary source materials at ULS libraries. (See specific search tips in the boxes to the right.)
  • Search WorldCat to find collections at thousands of libraries worldwide. Use the Advanced Search feature to limit by format or publication date.

Finding Aids

A finding aid is "a description of records that gives the repository physical and intellectual control over the materials and that assists users to gain access to and understand the materials." Source: Richard Pearce-Moses. Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology. Chicago: The Society of American Archivists, 2005.

Use finding aids to locate processed archival collections in archives, libraries, and museums. Finding aids are increasingly available online and freely accessible.

Reference & Other Print Sources

Make use of the many excellent print resources that are available to find primary source materials. These include:

  • Subject bibliographies
  • Film, Literature, and Periodical Indexes
  • Biographical Resources
  • Encyclopedias, Dictionaries, Handbooks
  • Secondary Sources (search the text, footnotes, and bibliographies for references to primary sources used).

Internet Search Engines

  • Use the Internet to find primary source materials by adding primary source specific terms to a Search Engine search. For example, "Civil War" AND "Pennsylvania soldier" AND diaries.
  • When searching Google, add "site:" in front of a .edu (educational), .org (organization), or .gov (government organizations) top-level domain to your search to uncover archives, libraries, and museums that collect primary source material related to your topic. For example, "Freedom Riders" AND "oral history"


Primary Sources in PittCat

Adding primary source-related keywords to your PittCat search will help you to more easily locate primary source materials. For example, if you are searching for primary sources on the Women's Suffrage Movement, search the phrase "Women's Suffrage" with the keyword "papers" (i.e., "women's suffrage" AND papers). Other keywords that can be used to locate primary sources are:

  • sources
  • archives
  • correspondence
  • interviews
  • notebooks
  • personal narratives
  • speeches
  • writings
  • fiction
  • reports
  • pictorial works
  • songs and music
  • cases
  • case study
  • oral history

Limiting by Resource Type and Date of Publication

You may also refine the results of a topic/subject search by resource type and date of publication using the filters on the left-hand side to customize your search.

To limit a search by Resource Type, click on the "Show more..." link to see a full list of available resource types for your search. Check the boxes of all types appropriate to your need - such as videos, conference proceedings, images, collection(s), scores, audio, maps, newspapers, and other (may include archival material) - then click the "Apply Filters" button.

Screenshot of PittCat Filter "Resource Type" applied to "Women's Suffrage" search.


Limiting sources to a particular date of publication will help you to locate contemporary sources published at the time of an event. For example, if you are examining American Literature during WWII, refine your search results by using the Date filter to retrieve novels published only during the years 1939 to 1945. You may want to further sort the results to display the oldest dates first.

Screenshot of PittCat "Date" Filter (1870-1920) applied to "Women's Suffrage" search.