Skip to Main Content

Nevada History Day Research: Primary Sources

Plan ahead to ensure your research visit to the UNLV Libraries is successful. This guide introduces how to use the UNLV Libraries and what resources are available to support historical research

Evaluating Primary Sources

Primary materials need to be carefully read and interpreted. Some questions to ask include:

  1. Who created the source and for what original purpose?
  2. Did the creator have firsthand knowledge?
  3. What biases or hidden agendas did the creator have? Is the document meant to persuade or inform?
  4. Was the source originally meant to be private or public?
  5. When was the source created? Soon after the event, years later?

What is a Primary Source?

A primary source is:

  • An item created by participants and observers of an event

Primary sources are the evidence left behind by participants or observers of a given event or during a particular period of time. Historians use primary sources to support their interpretation of the past.

Examples of primary sources include

  • Newspapers & magazines
  • Government reports
  • Diaries
  • Photographs
  • Letters
  • Memoirs
  • Oral histories
  • Film
  • Artifacts

The availability and kinds of primary sources vary with time period and topic. For example in times of low literacy, there will be fewer documents and those that exist will come from a certain class of people (those that are literate) or from a governing source. Primary sources for earlier periods of time will be more scarce than for recent times. Though many primary sources have been transcribed and published, primary sources are usually in the original language (though some have been translated into English) so most material from the Russian Revolution is in Russian rather than English.

Finding Primary Sources

For links to primary sources available in the UNLV Libraries (these include collections online, in print and on microfilm) as well as to primary source collections freely available on the web see:

  • Government Documents
    • Governments produce a wide array of documents ranging from Congressional or Parliamentary debates and reports, census data, agency or departmental papers to brochures, maps and posters. As primary sources these official governmental publications provide insight into all aspects of history from social issues to politics, from cultural mores to scientific endeavor
  • Images
  • Letters & Diaries
    • Letters and diaries provide a personal angle on history and often gives voice to the common person such as the WWI soldier in the trenches or the sweetheart on the homefront. However keep in mind that, like all sources, letters and diaries follow the convention of their times and must be considered in light of the writer's motivations and biases. There are a number of published collections of letters especially those written by well-known historical figures (Walt Whitman or Winston Churchill). Unpublished diaries and letters are found in manuscript repositories such as the Special Collections here at UNLV.
      Help: Making Sense of Letters & Diaries
  • Newspaper & Magazine Articles
  • Maps
  • Oral Histories
    • UNLV Oral History Research Center
    • Oral histories provide a personal angle on history and often gives voice to the common person. However it important to keep in mind that oral histories are subjective and individualistic and that memory is fallible.
  • Archival Materials @ UNLV

Keep in mind that non-UNLV students must be in the UNLV Libraries to use any of the links that include a lock icon.


American Memory from the Library of Congress provides a wide range of primary source materials in all the categories above.

Archives & Special Collections at UNLV

Databases: Primary Source Collections

The full text of letters and diary entries, often from works that have been previously published as books containing collections of letters or diaries. Use the Browse indexes to find works about specific historical or life events.

Use the date range limit to narrow your search to a relevant time period. 

free online collections (find more on Historic Newspapers page)

lists and search tips

Search for articles published in popular magazines and journals from different times in history.

Collections of several types of primary sources curated around a topic or theme.

Digitized collections of books published during different time periods.

Official government publications, including laws, treaties, and records of legislative proceedings.

United States

Great Britain

Digitized photos, films and art images.

These links allow you to search across multiple databases at the same time.

Freely available online collections

Microfilmed research collections

© University of Nevada Las Vegas