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History of Science: Primary Sources

Places to Find Primary Sources for Researching the History of Science

The following Guides Point to Databases, Websites, Microform, and Print Resources tools to access many kinds of Primary Sources:

Government Resources:


Another possible method to find primary sources is to search in UC Library Search

  • for historiograph* (historiography OR historiographical) AND particular subject area(s) 
  • for Source* (Source and Sources) AND particular subject area(s) 
  • for Pictorial* AND particular subject area(s)
  • for Map* AND particular subject area(s)

Other Subject Guides also point to many places to find Primary and Secondary Sources

Additional Methods and Places to Identify and Find Primary Source Material at UCSD

  • In order to effectively search for primary sources, it is helpful to understand the difference between primary and secondary sources.  A helpful resource for this purpose is the "MCWP 50 & MCWP 125" Guide (designed to support students in Marshall College's introductory writing program).  See especially the tab "Primary, Secondary, & Tertiary Sources," found as a drop-down beneath the "Workshop Topics" tab.
  • Dissertations are deeply researched and detailed works with comprehensive literature reviews and bibliographies and citations (which all point to important primary sources and where to find them).
  • Using a few techniques in UC Library Search can also find great primary sources:
    • Indicate a date range when you run your search (this limits the date of publication to the parameters you indicate)
    • Use the words: pictorial (for images) OR source* (for source or sources)
    • Resort your search by Date: Oldest First

For detailed instructions on using UC Library Search, use the linked document

Special Collections & Archives and Digital Collections

UCSD's Special Collections and Archives hold a wide range of historical archival, manuscript, book, and visual materials in many different formats.

Such materials are cataloged in UC Library Search and finding aids for manuscript collections are available on the SC&A website, along with policies and more information.  All SC&A materials are stored in an environmentally controlled, secured area and all users must register and place requests to see the materials. If the items are located onsite, we will pull on demand when you arrive at the library. Keep an eye out for materials that are located offsite (it will say so in UC Library Search), as delivery times for these items may be up to a week.

  • Register online to use Special Collections & Archives: Once registered, you can place requests online directly from the catalog and finding aids, or log in to your account to queue requests for a future visit and to view previous requests.
  • In addition to registering you will also need to show your photo ID when you visit Special Collections.

Digitization has made many of UCSD’s special collections more widely accessible through UCSD Digital Collections.

Primary Sources

A primary source is a work created by a person or persons involved in an event, movement, battle, etc., or in newspapers, journals, or other media contemporaneous with the event.  Thus they are first-hand (or primary) accounts of the event and they provide first-hand evidence of what happened.  Another way to think of primary sources is as "original," "uninterpreted" sources which provide an original perspective on an event.  Primary sources can come in many formats -- they can be published or unpublished, a printed text or a text that has been digitized, an artifact, a recording, a painting or and image.  They can also be reprinted or issued for publication or made accessible to the public long after their creation.  For example, government documents may be classified for many years before these primary sources can be used by researchers.  Oral histories may be recorded many years after the events about which the person is being interviewed took place.  Because of this, primary sources can be found in many sections of libraries and archives.  They are published in books that are found in circulating stacks.  They constitute articles in newspapers and manuscripts that are held in electronic databases and on microfilm.  They are manuscripts and legal treatises and rare books found in Special Collections.  They are digital images found on the internet and in digital library depositories.  Some examples of primary sources include autobiographies, diaries, e-mail, interviews, letters, minutes, news film footage, official records, photographs, raw research data, and speeches.  Newspapers can be considered primary sources if they offer first-hand accounts of events.   Often  they are considered secondary sources because they offer a second layer of interpretation of the subject matter.

*An additional note about distinguishing between primary and secondary sources: In the Humanities and Social Sciences, journal articles are generally considered secondary sources (because they are second-hand interpretations of events and subjects based on various primary sources).  However, it is important to understand that journal articles can contain primary data and in the sciences and even social sciences, journal articles often constitute primary sources.  This is one reason why it's best to work as closely as possible with your professor, TA, and subject specialist in the library.  We can all help you understand what constitutes a primary source for your topic.

Notable History of Science Collections in UCSD SC&A