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Library Research Guides

Primary Sources Primer

Introduction to the nature of primary sources and how to find them at the University of Michigan, including resources on campus, external to campus, and online.

Using Library Catalog Search

You can enhance your searches in library catalogs or databases by using subject terms that describe materials by format.  For example, if you enter your topic as a keyword (i.e., in the “all fields” field) in the advanced search, you can also add subject terms that will specify a type of material related to that topic.


  •          suffrage AND correspondence
  •          botany AND illustrations
  •          epidemiology AND data sets

Be sure to capitalize the word AND in order to search for both word or phrase choices. You can also add date ranges (e.g., 19th century) and geographic regions (Africa) as subject terms to focus in on the time period or area you are researching.


  • biography AND “19th century” AND Norway

Additional subject terms that specify potential primary source formats include:

  • archival resources
  • archives
  • atlases
  • bibliography
  • biography
  • broadsides
  • case studies
  • charts, diagrams
  • concordances
  • correspondence
  • daguerreotypes
  • diaries
  • dictionaries
  • encyclopedias
  • engravings
  • handbooks, manuals, etc.
  • illustrations
  • indexes
  • manuscripts—catalogs
  • maps
  • newspapers
  • periodicals 
  • personal narratives
  • photograph collections
  • photographs
  • pictorial works
  • portraits
  • prints
  • sermons
  • sources
  • speeches in Congress
  • speeches, addresses, etc.
  • statistics

You can also refine your search results to relevant time periods by using the advanced search. Enter numbers into the "Year of Publication" fields to refine your search results.  For example, if you need primary sources from 1863, limit the date of your sources to that year or a range of years close to it  to get a better set of search results.

Selected Primary Source Collections at U-M

The University of Michigan holds both extensive and specialized collections which support research with primary sources.  These include:

University Library Special Collections Research Center
The Special Collections Research Center in the Hatcher Library building holds internationally renowned collections of books, serials, manuscripts, posters, playbills, photographs, and original artwork. 

Bentley Historical Library
The Bentley Historical Library includes both the official University of Michigan archives and materials related to the history of the state.

Clements Library
The Clements Library's collections document all aspects of North America prior to the twentieth century. Its holdings are particularly strong in early exploration and settlement of North America, the American Revolution, and the American Civil War.

Art, Architecture and Engineering Library Special Collections

This collection includes artists books, limited edition monographs and facsimiles with special strengths in architecutre.  

U-M Library Image Collections

Collections of digitized images of artworks, cultural and historical artifacts, etc., from museums and other sources maintained by the U-M Digital Library Platform & Services. The collections include those held by the University of Michigan.


Locating Archive and Manuscript Collections

An archives is a place where primary source historical documents are collected, maintained and preserved. An archival collection usually emphasizes non-book information sources such as photos, correspondence, and other objects that provide information or evidence. 

A manuscript is a written document, and a manuscript collection usually consists of letters, drafts, journals, etc. Often, archival and manuscript collections are cataloged at a collection level, and researchers employ finding aids to discover the contents of a particular collection.

Our Finding Archives and Manuscripts research guide is an excellent source for locating these types of collections.

Visual Materials

Additional subject terms for visual items may be found in the Library of Congress' Thesaurus for Graphic Materials (TGM).  The Clements Library uses this tool to help make visual items discoverable. The thesaurus contains over 7,000 subject terms and 650 genre/format terms for pictures including photos, prints, drawings, and ephemera. The TGM is searchable through the Library of Congress' Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.