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U.S. History

Primary sources for history research by theme and era

What types of primary sources exist?

One of the first things you might consider when looking for primary sources for your research is what kinds of things are common to the time. What types of communication, documentation and material culture were produced in the mid-nineteenth century and by the people/events you are interested in? A little background knowledge and a little imagination can start you off on the path by using specific search systems and keywords.

Common Search Terms & Keywords

  • Documents
  • Documentary History
  • Letters
  • Diary or Journal
  • Writings


  • Speeches
  • Demographics, census, and population information
  • Photographs
  • Maps
  • Government and organizational documents
  • Newspapers
  • Material culture (clothing, furniture, toys, etc.)
  • Creative works (novels, poetry, plays, art

Primary Sources

Photography was a revolutionary new medium in the Civil War era. Understanding the history of the medium and types of photography available can give context on their purpose, who it was available to, and more.

Books with Primary Sources

Books are an excellent place to find reprints and transcriptions of original documents and images. You can use Keywords to search for books, or the Subject Heading for primary sources "Sources" by changing the drop down from  "Any Field" to "Subjects."

OneSearch Advanced search

Understanding Historical Newspapers

The mid-1800s were a time of great change for communication in the United States. The advacnes in transportation and the telegraph dramatically increased the speed information traveled. Furthermore, the federal government subsidized the distribution of newspapers through the U.S. Postal System. Communication with the public was vital to the war effort on both sides, and modern journalism as the profession we think of today was formed as a part of that. However, newspapers were still quite different than today and were often heavily partisan (backed by a political party or group).

Understanding how newspapers functioned during and after the Civil War is vital to place them (and the information they give) in the context of the times. See the following for brief overviews.

Digitized Newspapers

News & Visual Culture

While early photographic processes such as the Daguerreotype existed during the Civil War, it was not until the late 1800s that photographs were printed in newspapers, and not until the early 1900s that it became a regular practice. However, with the invention of the Lithograph, illustrations were common in the news. Political Cartoons were also a common way of influencing readers.

John F. Kennedy Memorial Library
California State University, Los Angeles
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Los Angeles, CA 90032-8300