Digitized Primary Sources

Digitization has revolutionized the way we do research. We can consult obscure sources from far flung repositories without traveling the globe to see the originals. And there are countless primary source collections online that contain digital copies of every type of item imaginable, from ancient cuneiform tablets to Antarctic Geological Field Notebooks, from historical audio recordings to fashion sketches.

Because it can seem like there are as many ways to find these digitized primary sources as there are types of sources, we are sharing some tools to help you navigate the sea of possibilities. This is not intended to be a comprehensive bibliography, but rather a jumping off point to inspire your research.  For additional suggestions, see our Archival Research guide.

Subscription Databases:  The GC Library subscribes to dozens of databases that contain primary sources. By choosing “select database type” on our A-Z list  and scrolling through the menu, you can filter the list to show either of these categories, which contain links collections of digitized materials:

  • Primary Source Collections – of every variety on practically every subject
  • Newspapers – historical newspapers and periodicals from around the world via the GC, the NYPL, and open access sources

Multidisciplinary Search Tools:  Among the myriad portals for finding sources, the following are useful launching pads for productive searches across wide subject areas:

  • DP.LA – The Digital Public Library of America – The DP.LA contains over 45 million images, texts, videos, and sounds from libraries, archives, and museums across the U.S. Search across this vast resource for digitized items and follow links back to the collections that contain them for the most comprehensive results.
  • Digital Library Directory – An online directory of over 750 digital library sources from around the globe. Though not an exhaustive list, the directory is an effective tool for discovering digitized materials.

Library Websites:  Unique materials are held in large and small libraries, archives, and historical societies in every corner of the world. Exploring the websites of institutions that collect in your subject area can be an excellent way to discover primary sources and supporting materials to advance your research.  The three libraries listed below are just a tiny sampling of repositories notable for their exemplary digital libraries:

Subject-Based Search Tools and Collections:  Countless topics across the humanities, social sciences, and sciences are featured in digital humanities projects and subject-based search tools. Highlights from among the multitude of such resources include:

  • Umbra Search for African American History – Brings together more than 800,000 digitized items from over 1,000 libraries and archives across the country.
  • Archives of American Art – A research center dedicated to collecting, preserving, and providing access to primary sources that document the history of the visual arts in America.
  • Biodiversity Heritage Library – The world’s largest open access digital library for biodiversity literature and archives.
  • Digital Transgender Archive – The DTA aims to increase the accessibility of transgender history by providing an online hub for digitized historical materials, born-digital materials, and information on archival holdings throughout the world.
  • Early Caribbean Digital Archive – A platform for accessing, researching, and contributing pre-twentieth-century Caribbean archival materials.
  • Native Northeast Portal – Primary source materials by, on, or about Northeast Indians from repositories around the world.
  • Old Maps Online – Indexes over 400,000 maps from across the globe.

International Portals:  An efficient way to find digitized materials in collections beyond the U.S. is to visit digital portals. Highlights include:

Government Sources:  Government archives, whether national, state, or municipal are quite massive, holding millions of items. They usually have their own search tools, so when you are looking for digitized government records, you can go straight to the website of the agency to look there.

Government documents also turn up in searches of the Digital Public Library of America, in the Internet Archive, and in subscription databases like Ancestry.com.

Web Search:  You can always try a web search on your topic. You may discover research guides and other reference tools along with digitized primary sources that may not turn up in searches of databases like WorldCat and ArchiveGrid.

Put your subject’s name in quotes and add archival keywords to find collections. For example, try a search like this: “A. Philip Randolph” AND (papers OR manuscripts OR archives OR collection) AND (digital or digitized).

Research Guides:  For more information and links to additional sources, see our Archival Research and Newspapers guides.

N.B.  One thing to keep in mind is that although there are many millions of digitized primary sources online, the vast majority of unpublished archival material that exists in libraries, archives, museums, and historical societies around the world has not been digitized and is not available online. What you find online will likely be the tip of the iceberg, so be sure to dig deeper into the repositories that hold digitized items to find additional sources on your topic.

Happy researching!

Image credit: Escuelas Normales Del Departamento Del Cauca. Programas Para Los Exámenes Anuales Reglamentarios. Año Escolar de 1888 a 1889 : J. León Helguera Collection of Colombiana.

About the Author

Donna Davey is an Adjunct Reference Librarian at the Graduate Center Library.