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Primary Sources: Digital and Physical Archives and Manuscript Collections

This guide is intended to introduce primary sources: what they are and where you can find them at Gelman, online, and elsewhere.

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Leah Richardson
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How to Cite Primary Sources

Citing primary sources properly is ethically imperative. A proper citation should lead your reader unambiguously back to the exact source consulted and referenced. The particular form of your citation will depend upon the citation style you adhere to (e.g. The Chicago Manual of Style, Modern Language Association, etc.). In general, citations progress from narrow to broad in presentation.

The basic elements that should appear in your citation are:

  • Repository: Where is the item held?

Ex: Special Collections Research Center, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

  • Collection or Record Group: Include the title and the collection or catalog number.

Ex: MS2007: Grace Cavalieri Papers

  • Series and/or Subseries (if applicable): Archival collections can consist of hundreds of boxes and are often organized into groups of similar records related by creator, activity, form, topic, etc. Include the series number and title.

Ex: Series II: Correspondence

  • Box and Folder Number (if applicable): If there is a title written on the folder heading, include this information as well.

Ex: Box 3 Folder 15 "Submissions, 1972-1973"

  • The document itself and date: Include the creator, page, section, and date information where necessary. You may have to impute the title description of the document if it isn't specifically stated.

Ex: Letter to Mary Ellen Hombs from Mitch Snyder, January 12, 1975.


Letter from James Oglethorpe to the Trustees, 13 January 1876, Series 1, Box 4, Folder 3. RG0001 Records of the Board of Trustees, Special Collections Research Center, The George Washington University Libraries, Washington, DC.


When you are in the reading room working with materials, it is good practice to take thorough notes about the document and its location. You may need to consult the finding aid and the labels on the folder and box - even if not all the information is required in the citation itself. Citing primary sources can be tricky. The best approach is to capture as much information as possible. It's always better to over cite than under cite.

Citation Guides

Information about citing sources is available at a number of websites including:

There are numerous style manuals in the library that provide information about citation format:

Manage your citations

The deeper that you get into your research, the more difficult it can be to organize and manage your citations.  Luckily, we offer the following citation management tools:

  • RefWorks
  • ​Zotero
  • Mendeley

​These are all extremely useful tools that can help you manage your citations and build your bibliographies.

For more information, see our Citation Tools guide, or ask a librarian!

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