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Tips for Finding Primary Sources Open Access

Your best bets for finding primary sources that are open access, plus step by step tips to save you time and get the sources you need.

What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are records created at the time of an event or experience, or as told by people who were present at the event such as those listed below:

  • letters
  • diaries
  • government documents
  • photographs
  • oral histories
  • artifacts
  • works of literature
  • maps

Open Access Historical Primary Sources


A work will be free if it is out of copyright or the author or publisher choose to make it free. This brief explanation of length of copyright & publications can help you determine if an author's work might be available for free, full text online.

Works Published After 1978
Life of the author + 70 years.

Works Published 1923-1978
95 years from date of publication.

Works Published Before 1923
All in the public domain.

Featured Open Access

You can use the same technique described for books and eBooks to find websites with primary sources using Google. Use the terms below with of or from with the name of an individual or event.

  • archives
  • autobiography
  • correspondence
  • eyewitness
  • first hand accounts
  • journals
  • oral history

Limit to .edu and .org to Save Time
It can take a while to get through a result list from Goolge. Try is restricting to .edu and .org sites, since they are the most likely to have primary sources. The search would look like this: papers of Thomas Jefferson ( OR

Here is an example of a primary source found when using papers of Thomas Jefferson ( OR

The Papers of Thomas Jefferson:

Google Books

Using Google Play Books you can find, read and download free classic works of literature and other primary sources like first hand accounts of historical events, autobiographies, correspondence, diaries, are more.

Here's how to get started:

  1. enter your author or work title in the search box.
  2. At the top of your result list, select the All prices pull down menu and select free.
  3. Click on the free eBook you want, click on the Free button and start reading or download to your Google Play app. Some free Google Play eBooks will require an existing count with a payment method, but will charge $0.00 to your account.

Google Play

Google Newspapers

Google Newspapers has evolved over the years. Google has worked with newspapers to digitize materials via the News Archive Partner Program, though there are currently no plans to scan additional newspapers.

The date to which these newspapers go back varies by newspaper, but many go back to the mid 19th century, and some even earlier. 

Here's how to get started:

  1. Go to Google Newspapers ( and use the search box above the newspapers.
  2. Search using the same techniques you'd use for regular Google, such as parenthesis to create a phrase search, and so on.
    Example "pearl harbor"

Wnat More? See Google Newspapers.


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