Skip to Main Content

HIST 300 - Introduction to Historical Studies: How to Google for Primary Sources

Why Try Using Google for Primary Sources?

Google itself may not be a scholarly, citable resource, but in the ever-expanding era of digital libraries it can be a powerful tool for locating primary source materials that have been digitized and made available online by many libraries, archives, and cultural heritage institutions such as museums and historical societies. However, it is important that you first evaluate the validity and credibility of the sources and providers of any material you find before using them for your research. 

It is important to remember that although many primary source research materials have been made available online, they represent only a small fraction of the total.  Depending on your topic, you may have varying degrees of success searching Google for primary source materials.   

Google Searching - Tips and Tricks For Finding Primary Sources

Primary sources have many different names, so it is important to have a good list of terms to use when developing your searches.  One good way to manipulate Google into finding the kinds of resources you need is to use the right terms in your searches.  Try the following words:   

  • documents
  • texts
  • photographs
  • maps
  • "primary sources"
  • "personal narratives"
  • diaries
  • interviews
  • "oral history" or "oral histories"
  • testimony

Another good practice is to use the "OR" connector to find subject synonyms within your search, and combine these with primary source term synonyms when creating your search string.

Sample Search: (segregation OR "jim crow") AND (documents OR diaries

Search Terms for Primary Sources

Robin M. Katz, a Primary Source Literacy Librarian at UC-Riverside, has developed a handout with more suggestions on how to create strong search terms when using Google for primary source searching.  

Using Social Media as Primary Source Material

Increasingly in the 21st century, social media is becoming a means of not only sharing personal events and thoughts, but also a means of documenting historical events as they unfold.  All social media platforms CAN house primary source materials, but NOT all social media posts SHOULD BE considered primary sources.  Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and even TikTok have the potential to provide excellent in-the-moment primary source material, but it will require a concerted effort on the part of the researcher to determine whether social media posts are primary sources or secondary sources. 

NOTE:  An aggregator site exists at DocNow (, where you can find tools to work with Tweet Catalog, which houses large datasets of Twitter IDs.  Using Tweet Catalog requires downloading Hydrator, which is open-source software from GitHub that will allow you to turn tweet ids into readable tweets with metadata.  A few exceptions exist on Tweet Catalog, where the data and tweets are accessible without the use of Hydrator, but this is not the norm.         

Evaluating Primary Sources found on Google

Whether researching for an assignment or personal curiosity, the internet can be a fast and rewarding fountain of information.  However, it can also quickly become a quagmire of personal opinions and misinformation.  All information you gather from searching the internet, including primary source material, should therefore be carefully evaluated and reviewed. 

Printed and physical materials like those collected in a library go through an evaluative and editorial process before they are published and collected.  The Internet has removed the restrictions and editorial process typical for print materials; anyone can publish on the web.  This adds an extra step to your internet research, but shouldn't discourage you from searching outside of subscription databases or physical library collections. 

To ensure that the Web sites you use as information sources are acceptable, you should ask some questions about those sites:

  1. Is this website created by a trusted repository or entity?
  2. Are you looking at a single item, or a complete collection?
  3. Are you able to fully access the actual digital object?

Evaluating Primary Sources Online - Websites

Robin M. Katz, a Primary Source Literacy Librarian at UC-Riverside, has developed a handout with specific steps on how to evaluate primary sources found online when using Google for primary source searching.    

Evaluating Primary Sources Online - Social Media

Robin M. Katz, a Primary Source Literacy Librarian at UC-Riverside, has developed a handout with specific steps on how to evaluate social media when searching for primary sources online.