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Finding Primary Sources

The Library of Congress makes millions of unique primary sources available online to everyone, everywhere. There are a few different ways to discover the best primary sources for you.

Select from a curated set

Primary Source Sets – Each set collects primary sources on a specific frequently-taught topic, along with historical background information and teaching ideas.

Free to Use and Reuse Sets – Batches of primary sources on engaging topics.

U.S. History Primary Sources Timeline – Explore important topics and moments in U.S. history through historical primary sources from the Library’s collections.

Search the online collections

Successful searches of the online collections of the Library of Congress, as with any archival research institution, begin with an understanding of what is likely to be found. Many considerations, including copyright, collection strengths, and how materials were acquired, factor into what can be digitized and made available online. The Library’s online collections are extensive, but they do have limits, and are strongest in the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century.

Use the search box at the top of the Library of Congress home page. A few tips:

  • Before starting your search take a moment to make a list of possible search terms.
    • Remember that different words or phrases may have been used to describe events or items in the past. For example: In the past the flu was sometimes known as the grippe.
    • People or places may have been identified differently or may have used different names previously. For example: Eleanor Roosevelt may be known as Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt.
    • There may be different spellings for names or places during the period you’re researching.
  • Use the drop-down menu to the left of the search box to select a format, like Maps, before you search.
  • To the left you will see a list of ways to narrow your search results. Scroll to the bottom to Access Condition and select “Available Online.”
  • Scroll back to the top and narrow your search results using the facets to the left of your search results, like Date and Location.
  • Select “Gallery” or “Grid” to change how you view the results. You can:
    • increase the number of items you see at one time at the bottom of the page;
    • change how the results are organized so they can be seen chronologically or in alphabetical order.
  • Find an item that is of interest? On the item page look to the right and find the subject headings listed. You can click on those to see what other items are listed under that same subject heading.
  • Explore related items at the bottom of the page.
  • Additional search tips can be found on the Library’s Search Help page.

Explore online resources

Congress.gov – Explore current and historic information on bills, laws and the legislative branch of the government.

Chronicling America – Access historic newspapers from all fifty states and the District of Columbia for accounts of historic and everyday events as reported at the time they happened.

Digital Collections – Access digital versions of some of the Library of Congress collections.

Check with the experts

Teaching with the Library blog – Short (500 words or less) posts featuring primary sources and teaching ideas.

Other Library blogs offer tips on finding Library resources, suggestions for other search terms or research ideas, and expert secondary information.

Today in History – Provides information and links to primary sources about a specific event in history.

Research Guides - In-depth guides to Library resources on a wide variety of topics.

Ask a Librarian – Send a question to a Library of Congress reference librarian. We're happy to help!