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History: Primary Sources

Finding primary sources at Queen's : getting started

Primary sources are the raw evidence that historians use to interpret the past and may be defined as a record created by a person who participated in the period studied, either at the time of the event or later. The key to understanding this type of source is the content covered: these sources reflect the particular, individual perspective of the author. And remember: whether or not a source is a "good" primary source depends very much on the questions being asked of it.

Use this page to consider how to begin your research using primary sources collections and link to collections here at Queen's or free online.

If you need any help or advice on using these resources please contact your Subject Librarian.

1. Getting started: what are you looking for?

Finding and working with primary sources requires similar skills to working with secondary sources databases and it is useful at the start to take some time to think clearly about what you are looking for.

To get started, first consider what you are looking for. Take some time to write this down.

Next, read around this topic broadly. Secondary sources will provide valuable ideas on types of sources to use, and may refer you to particular collections. Your course tutor may also give you some ideas of where it is best to find material.

Then, consider the following:

  • For your time period, what sources are likely to be available?​
  • What have other historians used? (footnotes, bibliographies)​
  • What can you access in the time frame you are working to? Both within Queen’s and outside.​

2. Finding primary sources at Queen's

Remember: primary sources are defined by their content rather than format. A primary source may exist as a manuscript or printed document, and this original document may also exist as a copy on microfilm or a digital copy online.​ With this in mind, finding primary sources depends on what types of sources you are searching for.​


The first place to start is often with a particular collection held by an archive. 

Finding Aids on collections may be accessed in physical and online archives and may also be found in archival catalogues. ​
Material can then be viewed either in it’s physical form by visiting the archive or by way of a digital copy via an online collection.​

Archives may have their own collections lists. Collections may also be listed together in searchable catalogues. 

​See the Archives and Special Collections box on this page for links to some collections.

Primary sources databases

Digitised copies of manuscripts and letters may be found using primary sources databases . Some primary sources databases are free online, some are available via subscription only​. Subscription platforms can be very expensive, it is unlikely that library will have every resource you need.​ See the Digital Primary Sources at Queen's and Free Online Digital Primary sources boxes in this guide for some ideas. 

Library catalogues

Transcribed, printed and published primary sources, such as collections of letters or speeches, may be found in your Library catalogue. ​You can find these in the same way you search, or browse the catalogue for a book and they can sometimes be borrowed. 

3. Using primary sources databases

  1. Give yourself time. Expect to repeat and refine your searches to get best use of the databases.​
  2. Choose keywords carefully. Consider terminology used at the time​
  3. Consider context. Database platforms will return disparate results often from many different collections, archives, countries. This isolates sources from their context and is far removed from the physical archive experience. You need to provide the historical context to the online documents you use. Secondary readings and other primary sources can help with this.​
  4. What isn’t there? Remember silences in archives. Consider what, or who, is missing from the records. 
  5. Find what you aren't looking for. Many of the best archival finds are fortuitous rather than planned. Consider how you can chunk your research by topic or date so that you have manageable number of resources to browse through.​​

4. Using primary sources found free online

The proliferation of free primary sources online brings exciting opportunities for student’s research online. Alongside some high quality, valuable resources some are lower quality and should not be used at university level – and some are fake. ​

Protect your academic credibility in three easy steps. If you cannot evaluate a site don’t use it!​

  1. Evaluate quality of free online databases: check the About information. Do the people behind it have academic credentials?​
  2. Check the provenance of primary sources found online. You should be able to find out easily where the original is held.​
  3. Be sure to cite where you accessed your primary source – be transparent!​

​If you need further advice contact your Subject Librarian.​

Archives and Special Collections

Archives Hub : The Archives Hub brings together descriptions of thousands of the UK’s archive collections. Representing over 330 institutions across the country, the Archives Hub is an effective way to discover unique and often little-known sources to support your research. 

British Library Manuscripts and Archives Catalogue Use the Archives and Manuscripts catalogue to find details of the Library’s unique collection items including: Manuscripts and unpublished documents, Personal papers, correspondence and diaries, Family and estate papers etc.

National Archives of Ireland : The National Archives hold records of government of the modern Irish state from its foundation to approximately 1988 and private collections that complement holdings, including business records, medical collections, solicitors’ collections and some landed estate collections. These collections are particularly useful for anyone interested in researching the political, social and economic development of Ireland from the 18th century to the present day. Many collections are also extremely valuable for family and local history research.

National Archives (UK) Discovery Catalogue : Discovery holds more than 32 million descriptions of records held by The National Archives and more than 2,500 archives across the country. Over 9 million records are available for download.

National Library of Ireland Manuscript Collection Lists : The Manuscript Collection Lists provide detailed listings of the contents of manuscript collections.

Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) eCatalogue : The eCatalogue is a fully searchable database containing over one million catalogue entries relating to PRONI’s archives.

RASCAL : RASCAL is an electronic gateway to research resources in Ireland. You can use this web-site to search and browse information about the wide range of research and special collections held in libraries, museums and archives across the region.

Special Collections and Archives at Queen's University Belfast Special Collections & Archives provides access to books, maps, photographs and manuscripts from the twelfth century on, and the institutional archive of Queen's University Belfast. All items held are considered to be of lasting research value. Special Collections material may also be found by searching the Library Catalogue.

This University Archive is the institutional archive of Queen's University Belfast, it comprises records pertaining to the history and development of Queen’s from its foundation as a Queen’s College in 1845 through to its establishment as an independent university in 1908 to the present day.  

Digital primary sources at Queen's

The resources listed below are all accessible via the Library catalogue. You may need to login using your Queen's credentials.

Early English Books Online : From the first book published in English through the age of Spenser and Shakespeare, this incomparable collection now contains about 100,000 of over 125,000 titles listed in Pollard & Redgrave's Short-Title Catalogue (1475-1640) and Wing's Short-Title Catalogue (1641-1700) and their revised editions, as well as the Thomason Tracts (1640-1661) collection and the Early English Books Tract Supplement. Covers many subject areas, including English literature, history, philosophy, linguistics, theology, music, fine arts, education, mathematics, and science.

** Find further information and support for using EEBO here

** Click here for a short introduction to early modern books (April 2020) 

ECCO - Eighteenth-Century Collections online :  Access to scanned full text copies of 150,000 18th Century books, pamphlets and ephemera.Includes books, pamphlets, essays, broadsides and more. Based on the English Short Title Catalogue. Works published in the UK during the 18th century plus thousands from elsewhere.


Gale Primary Sources : Gale Primary Sources is a universal research experience that combines Gale's acclaimed digital archives in a single cross-search interface. 

John Johnson collectionThis collection provides access to thousands of items selected from the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, offering unique insights into the changing nature of everyday life in Britain in the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Categories include Nineteenth-Century Entertainment, the Booktrade, Popular Prints, Crimes, Murders and Executions, and Advertising

House of Commons Parliamentary Papers : HCPP includes over 200,000 House of Commons sessional papers from 1715 to the present, with supplementary material back to 1688. HCPP delivers page images and searchable full text for each paper, along with detailed indexing. Quick guide to HCPP

Migration to New Worlds: The Century of Immigration (Module I) : Collection materials include unique primary source material on the ‘Century of Immigration’ (1800-1924). Materials include Colonial Office files on emigration, unique diaries, personal letters, ship logs and plans, printed literature, objects, watercolours, oral histories, and journals.

Nineteenth Century Collections Online - British Politics and Society : A resource for 19th century studies, NCCO is a multi-year global digitization and publishing program focused on primary source collections of the "long" nineteenth century. Collections for this program are sourced through partnerships with major world libraries as well as specialist libraries, and content includes monographs, newspapers, pamphlets, manuscripts, ephemera, maps, statistics, and more.

Northern Ireland: A Divided Community, 1921-1972 Cabinet Papers of the Stormont Administration : The Stormont Administration ran Northern Ireland as a province of the UK from 1921-72. This digital resource offers full-text searching of facsimile images of the complete record of Stormont from the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, along with new interpretative essays and resources.

Yeats, W. B. - The Collected Letters : The InteLex electronic edition of The Collected Letters of W. B. Yeats includes all of the known letters of the great Irish poet, dramatist and statesman.


A selection of free online digital primary sources

The resources listed below are all freely available online. This is only a selection of what is available. Remember to evaluate content and providers carefully. If there is anything you would like added to this list please get in touch with your Subject Librarian.


Cross-diciplinary primary sources archives

Europeana : Discover inspiring cultural heritage from over 3500 European museums, libraries and archives in Europe.

Google Books

Project Gutenberg : Library of over 60,000 free ebooks, mostly published before 1924.

Internet Archive : A non-profit digital library offering free universal access to books, movies and music as well as 424 billion archived web pages.

Hathi Trust : A partnership of academic and research institutions offering collections of millions of titles digitized from libraries around the world.


Modern History (UK and Ireland)

Church of Ireland Gazette: The Representative Church Body Library’s long–term project to digitize and make freely available the complete run of the Church’s all–island newspaper, the Church of Ireland Gazette (in print since 1856), is about to be fulfilled with the addition of the remaining decades from 1950 to 2009 to the existing online search engine. See highlights in Archive of the month

Connected Histories: British History Sources 1500-1900 : Allows you to cross-search a variety of major e-resources in British history.

Dublin Gazette : Assembled via the Beyond 2022 Project. 

Histpop via NISRA: All Ireland censuses (pre-1921)

Punch cartoon archive : Archives from the long-running 19th and 20th century satirical British magazine.


Northern Ireland

ARK (Access, Research, Knowledge) : Information on Northern Ireland

CAIN (Northern Ireland conflict)

BBC Northern Ireland Archive. Includes BBC Rewind (more than 13,000 clips from two decades of Northern Ireland broadcasting) and other snapshots from Northern Ireland life recorded by the BBC over the years.

Registrar General Historical Reports : Births, deaths and marriages in Northern Ireland 1921- .


American History

Bay area archivesCalifornia College of the Arts guide to the Bay area archives and archival research.

Calisphere : The history of California in digitised primary sources, including photographs, documents, newspaper pages, political cartoons, works of art, diaries, transcribed oral histories, and advertising

Digital Public Library of America : Launched as an independent organization in 2013, DPLA and it's growing national partner network makes more than 30 million items freely discoverable through a one-stop research experience. Content includes photographs, maps, news footage, oral histories, manuscript documents, artwork, and more.

Library of Congress : Digital Collections at the Library of Congress. See also the American Memory list. 


History of slavery

Transatlantic Slave Trade Database : Information on almost 35,000 slaving voyages, providing information about vessels, enslaved peoples, slave traders and owners, and trading routes.


Church History

The Killoughter Vestry minute Book : In May 2016, the vestry book was digitised and a digital version of the manuscript covering the period 1813 to 1916 may be accessed online.



Old Bailey Online : A fully searchable edition of the largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published, containing 197,745 criminal trials held at London's central criminal court.


Emigration and transportation

Clare, County - Emigration records: primary source material donated to Clare County Library : Passenger lists from various collections detailing emigration to Austrialasia and the USA. Includes assisted emigration and transportation. 

Documenting Ireland: parliament, people and migration (DIPPAM) : DIPPAM is an online virtual archive of documents and sources relating to the history of Ireland and it's migration experience from the 18th to the late 20th centuries. Includes the Irish Emigration Database

Down, County - Gaol Convicts Database : Down County Museum project to gather information on the convicts who had been transported from the County Gaol of Down to the penal colony of New South Wales.

Down, County - Down Convicts Database : This database contains the details of the 1300 + convicts from County Down who were transported to New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land. 

Female Convicts Research Centre : The Female Convicts Research Centre is a not-for-profit organisation run entirely by volunteers.Its purpose is to encourage research “into the lives and experiences of convict women and their children in Van Diemen’s Land; into the Female Factories through which they passed; and into the staff of the Factories who looked after them and the settlers for whom they worked”.

Irish Australia Transportation Database : Searchable databases of the wide range of records held by the National Archives relating to the transportation of convicts from Ireland to Australia covering the period 1788 to 1868 See here for help on searching the archive. 



War and propaganda

Commonwealth War Graves Commission : Includes archive of letters and photographs sent to families during WW1

World War I Document Archive (Brigham Young University)

Great War Archive and the First World War Poetry Archive (University of Oxford)

Cold War International History Project (Wilson Center)

War movies and war propaganda (Berkeley)

Propaganda (University of Washington)

German propaganda archive

Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal, Nuremberg, 14 November 1945 - 1 October 1946 (Library of Congress) : 42-volume series, also known as "The Blue Series" - official record of the trial of the major civilian and military leaders of Nazi Germany who were accused of war crimes

Screenonline : From the British Film Institute (BFI): see the section under Film - Genres and themes - War for material on war and cinema

Wilson Centre Digital Archive : Cold War Era documents


Soviet History

Seventeen Moments in Soviet History : Multi-media archive of primary sources designed to introduce students and the general public to the richness and contradictions of Soviet history. Archive accessible by theme or year. Includes subject essays, images, video clips, music and primary texts. 



Clergy of the Church of England Database (CCEd) : Records of clerical careers from over 50 archives in England and Wales, providing coverage of clerical lives from the Reformation to the mid-nineteenth century

Histpop online : The Online Historical Population Reports (OHPR) collection provides online access to the complete British population reports for Britain and Ireland from 1801 to 1937. The collection goes far beyond the basic population reports with a wealth of textual and statistical material which provide an in-depth view of the economy, society (through births, deaths and marriages) and medicine during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Old Maps Online : Online search gateway to historical maps in libraries around the world.

Quick guides