History Homework

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Government Sources

University Sources

Historical Society Sources

History Homework Help

By Libby Feil

"Help! I'm working on a history project and I can't find primary sources!" Never fear, the Library is here! If you are a student or the parent of a student, you can relate to this problem. During the school year we see many students in the Library who are working on history projects and need to find primary sources. Don't despair! There are plenty of places to look.

The newspaper is a good first stop. We have the South Bend Tribune on microfilm going all the way back to May of 1873, and all the way forward until the present. Stop into Local & Family History Services on the second floor of Main Library and ask for help in finding information in the South Bend Tribune. We also have the New York Times on microfilm all the way back to 1851, which is a great source of national and international news. The Magazines, Newspapers, Fiction Department also has indexes to the Times, so you can search for your research topic and go directly to the right issue.

What if you can't make it downtown? You can go to your nearest computer, or right to your home computer if you have one, and look at our newspapers available online. Just go to the "Newspapers" section of our website. We have the historical Chicago Tribune from about 1920 to 1984, and the New York Times available online from 1981 through the present, and the South Bend Tribune from about 1994 to the present. To use these databases from home, you just need a valid St. Joseph County Public Library card.

Another useful newspaper resource is NewspaperARCHIVE, which can also be used from home with an SJCPL card. This searchable database contains actual images of articles and pages from a wide variety of American newspapers from all time periods. It also has some issues of English newspapers. This database is an excellent place to look for primary sources from around the country. An additional excellent free source is the Google News Archive, which contains digital scans of actual newspapers from the United States and some foreign countries for various time periods.

When I worked as a history instructor, I also relied on several government and university web sites that are great sources of primary documents. They are reputable, authoritative web sites. They serve up actual photographs, letters, interviews, documents, and more, so you can look at and print out good quality copies of the original items.

The biggest site is the Library of Congress's American Memory project. You can find old advertisements, maps, photographs, sheet music, letters, diaries, and all manner of government documents. It includes material on the Revolutionary War, slavery, the Civil War, the huge immigration to American in the late 1800s and early 1900s, World War II, women's suffrage, the Civil Rights Movement, and so much more. There is a search box you can use to search for a name, place, topic, or even a date!

The National Archives also provides a wealth of history materials. They have three major sites that are of interest to students, parents, and teachers. First, they have a site that hosts their Online Exhibits. You can view, online, digital copies of the charters of freedom (Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights), documents about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, photographs and digital copies of artwork from the New Deal, World War II posters, and a mind-blowing variety of other topics. Their America's Historical Documents site showcases some famous and unusual letters (check out Elvis's letter to President Nixon), patents, court cases, and more. The Digital Classroom section has information and help for students--as well as lesson plans and activity ideas for teachers.

More good websites for material about a variety of regions and times in American history are George Mason University's History Matters - Many Pasts and the University of Chicago Library's Digital Activities & Collections. The former showcases a wide variety of primary documents. The University of Chicago site has primary documents and historic photographs from around the world, with an emphasis on America and the Midwest. Pay special attention to their Archives and Manuscripts Finding Aids listing, which does not sound promising but actually includes digitized documents attached to finding aids. A search for Ida B. Wells, for example, turns up a finding aid to the Guide to the Ida B. Wells Papers, 1884-1976. The guide has links to digital versions of all the papers in the collection.

Four other sites have primary resources from the slavery and Civil War periods. Documenting the American South and Valley of the Shadow both showcase books, diaries, letters, illustrations, other documents--even songs--from this time period. Documenting the American South can be searched by date, and Valley of the Shadow is arranged by time period and then by topic. Duke University's African-American Women Online Archival Collections feature rare memoirs and letters of African American women who lived under and after slavery. The California Underground Railroad Digital Archive is a unique resource of primary source documents on slavery in California (yes, there was slavery in California), from California State University at Sacramento.

The last century is history now too! The famed twentieth-century interviewer Studs Terkel talked with people from all walks of life, and his website Studs Terkel - Conversations with America contains interviews with "ordinary" twentieth-century Americans from a variety of backgrounds. The Chicago Historical Society created this site.

Back to the Local History page

Contact and find out more about Local & Family History Services
Created by: Libby Feil, October 2006
Last updated January 5, 2013

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