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EN 2271: American Literary Histories: The Literature of Slavery : Find Primary Sources

Primary Sources for History

Primary sources are materials that provide firsthand testimony to a subject under investigation. Researchers often use these firsthand accounts of specific events to understand events from the viewpoint of people living during that time period.

Primary sources include documents and artifacts from the time period under study, such as:

  • letters
  • diaries
  • photographs 
  • newspaper articles
  • pamphlets
  • government records
  • songs
  • poems

Primary sources also include writings and recordings by witnesses who experienced the events or conditions being documented, such as:

  • oral histories
  • autobiographies
  • memoirs 

See the Find Books at WPI page of this guide for help finding slave narratives (autobiographies and memoirs by formerly enslaved people). 

Primary Sources: Books at WPI

Sometimes collections of primary source documents are republished in books. To find books like these, search WPI Library Search for books about your topic and add keywords such as journals, papers, letters, documents, primary sources, documentary history, or sourcebook to your search terms. You can also look for memoirs or autobiographies to find first-hand accounts of historical events. 

Here are some examples of books containing primary sources:

Library Databases with Primary Sources

Databases available through WPI:

Databases available through the Boston Public Library: 

Examples of Websites with Primary Sources

To find primary sources via Google, try adding keywords like journals, papers, letters, documents, primary sources, or documentary history to your search terms. Primary sources can often be found on library, museum, and government websites. 

Here are some examples of websites that have primary sources for the history of enslavement in America:

This image shows the first page of a handwritten copy of "An Appeal to Congress for Impartial Suffrage" by Frederick Douglass, 1881

Frederick Douglass, "An Appeal to Congress for Impartial Suffrage," 1881

The contents of The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress are in the public domain and are free to use and reuse.