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REL 490/495: Senior Seminar: Primary Sources

Why Bother?

Researching primary sources can be a great idea for senior projects. Not only do you get to investigate matters first-hand, you also refine your research skills.

Advanced Search in the Library Catalog

An advanced subject search for "diaries" gives you all holdings that include "diaries" anywhere in the subject heading. For example,

  • Kamikaze pilots -- Diaries
  • American diaries -- History and criticism
  • Pepys, Samuel, 1633-1703 -- Diaries



Indexes provide article citations (usually within a certain year.) Researchers just need look up their topic(s) and see the list of all items published on that topic. While databases are great at this kind of searching, they often do not include older articles. Another challenge for researchers is that while some databases have been created specifically to serve as an index, the researcher's library may not subscribe to such databases. Consequently, good researchers check print indexes, especially when searching for older articles.


While indexes list all items published within a given time frame, bibliographies list only select items related to a topic. Usually chosen are high quality literature widely recognized as influential in the field.

Finding Indexes and Bibliographies

Do these subject searches (in the Advanced Search interface) to find and utilize these search tools.

  • religion
  • theology
  • bibliography
  • indexes

Subject Searches

Consider searching the singular and plural forms of the following. To search for both "diary" and "diaries" use an asterisk in your search term:  "diar*"

After identifying primary sources relevant to your research topic, use the appropriate term(s) in your subject searches.

  • interviews
  • diaries
  • narratives
  • sources
  • documents
  • statistics
  • antiquities
  • correspondence
  • manuscripts
  • maps
  • government publications
  • oral history
  • treaties
  • newspapers
  • periodicals
  • pictorial works
  • documentary films
  • biographical films
  • addresses
  • debates
  • speeches

You may also wish to include the following terms as subject searches to limit your results to the appropriate time period and/or geographic region. This may be useful if you encounter many results, but may not be useful if these limit your results to only a handful of items.

  • 19th century
  • United States OR U.S.


Keyword Searches

Another useful strategy is to do a keyword search. Subject searches match your search terms to an item's subject headings. Keyword searches match your search terms to all the text in an item record: subject headings, notes, titles, authors, etc. Consequently, keyword searches will yield more results than subject searches.

  • "serial set" to search for Congressional documents
  • "ill." OR "illus." to search for illustrations


Author Searches

Another strategy considers the creator of documents. Once you have gathered background information about your topic, you may have a better sense of specific agencies or groups who may have published papers or other documents. To look for government documents, know which government agencies would likely produce the documents you need.

  • government agencies
  • departments
  • countries
  • organizations
  • associations