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Primary Sources

Guides to print, microform, and online collections

What is a Subject Heading?

A subject heading is a specific term or phrase assigned to a work (e.g. a book, video, or sound recording) that describes what the work is about. Subject headings are based on a list of preferred terms (also known as a controlled vocabulary). They are similar to tags and hashtags in that they pull works with similar concepts together. Subject headings are SEARCHABLE as subject terms, and display in the full record.
Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) is the preferred list of terms maintained by the Library of Congress in Washington. Libraries databases that use LCSH include BearCat / QuickSearch (SUNY Potsdam Library Catalog), WorldCat, and HathiTrust Digital Library.
  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865
  • Women -- Social conditions
  • Gay politicians -- History

Library of Congress Subject Subdivisions for Primary Sources

A Subdivision is a narrowing term assigned to LCSH to focus on a specific aspect of a topic. To locate primary sources on your topic, search a subject heading, such as a country name, a personal name, a topic or an event, and add one of these subject Subdivisions:
  • Sources
  • Personal narratives
  • Slave narratives
  • Captivity narratives
  • Correspondence 
  • Biography
  • Interviews
  • Diaries
  • Early Works to 1800
  • Facsimiles
  • Notebooks, sketchbooks, etc.
  • Speeches
  • Manuscripts
  • Early Works to 1800
  • Pamphlets
Note that "Primary Source" is not a valid LCSH Subdivision. Use "Sources" instead. Likewise, "Autobiography" is not used by the Library of Congress for memoirs and personal narratives. "Autobiography" is generally used for works about how to write autobiographies and criticism. Use "Biography" instead.


  • Art -- History -- Sources
  • Authors -- Correspondence
  • South Africa -- Women -- Biography
  • Africans -- Biography
  • Politicians -- Kenya -- Interviews
  • Tutsi (African People) -- Personal Narratives
  • Mandela, Nelson -- Speeches
Using subject subdivisions will help make your searches more focused. For example, a subject search on "Ghana" may yield over a hundred records in the library catalog, but a subject search on "Ghana -- Sources" yields just a few.

Keywords, Genre Terms and other Subject Heading lists

LCSH is just one type of subject heading list. Many of the library databases include other types of headings and genre terms, as well as keywords. Older catalog records may be incomplete or sparse in it's use of subject headings, so keyword searches may help get you what you want. Think about the language and the culture of your topic, and use relevant phrases from the time period you are researching. Try including some of these terms in your keyword searches:
  • Account
  • Archives
  • Autobiography
  • Collection
  • Documents
  • Documentary history
  • Eye witness
  • First hand account
  • Letters
  • Life stories
  • Manuscript documents
  • Manuscripts
  • Minutes
  • Oral history
  • Papers
  • Primary sources
  • Primary documents



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