How to Find Primary Source Documents

Two Methods:Extracting Information About the Primary SourceAcquiring the Primary Source (or Copies of them)

When doing research, researchers usually rely on what is called "secondary"[1] and "tertiary"[2] sources. These are compilations and reinterpretations of original other sources that are called "primary"[3][4] sources. These secondary and tertiary sources are usually enough and sometimes even obligatory. However, in some areas and topics of research, it is desirable, and sometimes necessary, to go back to the original, primary sources. For example, in comparative studies[5] and studies of representations of specific concepts/topics. This article will help you find and extract the original primary sources from your secondary and tertiary sources.

Method 1
Extracting Information About the Primary Source[6]

  1. Image titled DIY Step 3
    Prepare yourself. Choose a good way to take notes.
  2. Image titled Choose a Good Book Step 2
    Sort your secondary and tertiary sources by importance. Separate secondary from tertiary sources.
  3. Image titled Keep up to Date With Coursework Step 11
    Create a section in your notes for each secondary or tertiary source. For example, create a card with the name of the source and information about it. Leave space to fill in information about its primary sources.
  4. Image titled Become a College Professor Step 17
    Go through your secondary and tertiary sources. For each one, extract whatever information you can about the primary sources used within the secondary/tertiary source and note it down. The specifics differ depending on the type of the secondary or tertiary source, but mostly, the information can be found as follows:
    1. Look for bibliographic, references, or sources sections in most books, encyclopedias and other research papers. Usually all primary sources and citation sources are mentioned there. All you have to do is separate the citation sources from the general ones.
    2. Look within the title or subtitle of interpretative, explanatory, and guide books and paper materials. Usually, a book about XYZ will have XYZ somewhere in the title. Look up this specific source in the bibliographic/references section.
    3. Look within the body of the article for mentions of the primary sources in the case of magazines, newspapers, periodicals, handouts, and websites or web pages. This type of secondary or tertiary source is usually the hard one. In many cases, you won't find the source immediately and you will have to dig deeper. Sometimes, the source is not mentioned at all, in which case you should try one of the following:
      1. Obtaining the primary sources from the author of the article in question:
        1. From the publication, extract the name and contact information of the author (if possible).
          • If you couldn't obtain the contact information of the author from the article, look up the author in a directory service or online. Most authors have websites that provide contact information.
          • If you could not find a way to contact the author, follow the second method of obtaining primary sources below.
        2. Contact the author asking for the primary sources. Use one communication method at a time, so as not to be confused with a spammer or a fan.
        3. Discard the secondary or tertiary source. If it does not cite sources, its text is unverifiable.
      2. Obtaining the primary sources from the publishing company, organization, or institute of the publication:
        1. Obtain the contact information of the publisher from the publication.
          • Use directory services or online search if the contact information is not explicitly stated.
        2. Contact the company asking for the primary sources of the article. State the title, the issue, the volume and any other information that identifies the article.
    4. You might use the last method (obtaining sources from the publisher) in other cases, such as encyclopedia and other collective works.
  5. Image titled Get a Book Idea Step 13
    Prepare a structured list of the primary sources you need to obtain from the information you collected earlier. You can use a spreadsheet application or a handwritten list. You should fill out the following fields for each source:
    1. Title. The title of the source.
    2. Type. What type of documents is the source? Usually this is one of:
      • Works of art, architecture, literature, or music.
      • Magazine, newspaper, periodical, or an article in one of them.
      • Diary, journal or entry in a diary or journal
      • Letter
      • Proceedings (of meetings, conferences and symposia)
      • Records of organizations, governments, or agencies such as:
        • Annual Reports
        • Treaties
        • By-laws and laws
        • Decrees
        • Memos
        • Regulations
      • Patents
      • Original documents. Such as:
        • Birth certificates
        • Wills
        • Marriage licenses
        • Trial transcripts
      • Web sites
      • Internet communications on email, listservs, etc.
      • Survey research
      • Interviews (oral histories, telephone, e-mail)
      • Speeches
    3. Time Issued, published, or circulated. Be as precise as you can be.
    4. Serial Number/ISBN (if applicable).
    5. Volume, issue, page and column (if applicable).
    6. Edition (if applicable).
    7. Publisher, author.
  6. Image titled Become a College Professor Step 28
    Sort the previously obtained list by document type.

Method 2
Acquiring the Primary Source (or Copies of them)

  1. Image titled Invest Small Amounts of Money Wisely Step 11
    Start by retrieving sources that can be retrieved online. Such sources include websites, Internet communications, governmental and organizational documents, manufacturer specifications, some survey research and some periodicals and works of art.
  2. Image titled Plan For a Successful Future Step 1
    Start searching within libraries for the rest of the sources.
    • Regular public libraries may not have primary source documents. University libraries and the Library of Congress usually include more sources.
    • Check online databases regardless. Many libraries subscribe to databases that you may be able to use to see abstracts or even the full text of journal articles.
  3. Image titled Persuade Your Parents to Do Something Step 4
    Compile a list containing the sources you could not acquire using the first steps. Contact your school, university, or local public library. One of the librarians can help you.
  4. Image titled Present an Oral Argument Step 6
    Compile a list of the citations of any sources you couldn't obtain thus far. Start communicating your request for the sources to entries on this list asking for information on how you may obtain them.
  5. Image titled Get a Masters of Library Science (MLS) Degree Online Step 4
    Use WorldCat to see if you can obtain your remaining sources from a different library nearby, or just request it through Interlibrary Loan. All libraries can obtain books, articles, and sometimes copies of primary sources, typically delivered to your local library.


  • Make sure that you understand the difference between primary and secondary or tertiary sources.[6].
  • When contacting any organization asking for sources or contact information, clearly state the reason for your request and how you got their address.


  • Do not list a source as primary unless you are sure it is. Sometimes the distinction is tricky and it could lead to discrediting your research.
  • Do not use primary sources in your research unless it is required. Some research situations explicitly forbid the use of primary sources.

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