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Finding Primary Sources


When it comes to primary sources, these can be found in any library, but the older and rarer something is, the more likely it is to be in a rare book library and probably not a public or university library. Now, often times a rare book library is going to be associated with a university. For example, there is the Beinecke at Yale, the Lilly Library at Indiana University, and the Bodleian at Oxford. There are also private institutions like the Huntington in LA or the Morgan Library in NYC. 

Libraries are repositories for books (a repository is just a fancy word for "place that holds things"). A rare book library holds books that are considered "rare" or otherwise "special" enough to be kept as pieces of history. This decision of what is kept in a rare book library is one made time and time again by several people over decades. The main difference between a rare book library and a public library is how you access the materials. 

In a public library you can choose the book you want, check it out, and take it home with you. In the rare book world, books do not leave their respective libraries. So instead, you get "checked in" and visit a reading room where you can look through the book you're interested in. Because not everyone can travel potentially far distances to view materials, most rare book libraries have incorporated digital ways to provide access to materials. This may come in the form of digitization orders, where you can acquire pdfs of pages or zoom consultations where a library staff member flips through the materials for you.


Archives are also repositories for historical documents. Almost every university will have a University Archive which holds the history of that institution. There are also government, religious, community, museum, and corporate archives. 

Most (but not all) archives will have what is called a Collection Policy which dictates the kinds of materials they can add to their holdings. Government archives, like presidential libraries, will have specific collection policies that allow them to only collect documents related to their respective presidents. 

While archives are generally understood as being repositories for manuscript collections, they can hold so much more. Archives have the most overlap with museums because they can have objects too. Sometimes this is hair, or trinkets, an old bottle of wine, or even window blinds. Many archival collections are specifically attributed to a person. This means that whatever was purchased or donated from either that person or that person's estate ends up in the collection, and this can lead to some odd stuff!


As you could probably tell just from reading the descriptions on this page, there is a lot of overlap between libraries and archives. 'Book' is a flexible definition and both repositories can hold historical items. Sometimes, what's really an archive is called a library. The important thing to remember when it comes to libraries vs archives is how you search for their materials, so go to that tab on the left to learn more.

The other thing to keep in mind is a lot of institutions will have both a library and an archive. So take some time to look into the places you're wanting to research to see what kinds of materials they hold.

U.S. Libraries & Archives

Library of Congress - Washington D.C.

Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2009.

The Beinecke - New Haven, CT

Photo by Lauren Manning, 2010.

The Morgan Library - New York City, NY

Photo by Susan Q. Yin.

Lilly Library - Bloomington, IN

Photo by Chad Mottinger, 2021.