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American History

Research guide for sources in American history

Primary Sources

What are primary sources?

Primary sources are original documents and objects created at the time being studied, such as diaries, newspaper accounts, letters, governmental records, or drawings. Any record that documents a past event can be considered a primary source.

Where can I find primary sources? 

You can find primary sources in libraries, museums, and archives, including McGill's Rare Books and Special Collections Library (located on the 4th floor of the McLennan Library building). You can also find digitized primary sources online in library databases, such as those linked below, as well as in digitized collections, such as McGill's Digital Exhibitions & Collections.

What's included here?

This guide includes databases and collections of digitized primary source materials organized into the following groups:

  • Newspapers and early journals
  • General primary source collections
  • Indigenous voices and encounters
  • Slavery, abolition, emancipation, and freedom
  • Settler and immigrant experiences and perspectives
  • Government documents
  • Statistics
  • Collections at McGill

Newspapers and Early Journals

Local newspapers provide insight into the social and cultural life of their communities. Several databases with historic American newspapers and journals are included below.

General Collections


Colonial History

American Civil War

Modern U.S. History

Thematic Collections

Gender and Sexuality

Indigenous Voices and Encounters

For more from Indigenous voices, please see the Indigenous Studies subject guide.

Slavery, Abolition, Emancipation, and Freedom

Primary sources in this group focus on Black experiences with slavery, abolition, emancipation, and freedom -- a phrase derived from the Harvard Library project linked below. Many primary sources included here are written about, rather than by, Black people; be sure to keep this in mind when analyzing these sources.

Settler and Immigrant Experiences and Perspectives

Government Documents


Collections at McGill ROAAr

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