The journey towards finding primary sources usually begins with looking at secondary sources. Reading secondary sources - books, magazine articles, articles in encyclopedias and other reference books, web pages, etc. - gives the researcher background, particularly in terms on historical context - dates, places, people, events. Background reading can also help the research begin to develop research questions and also become aware of how difficult or easy it will be to locate information answering those questions.
At the back of a book or end of an article or web page, the researcher may find a bibliography which cites other sources, including primary ones, that the author used. Authors also make suggestions in "For Further Reading". Increasingly, authors use photographs, maps, excerpts from diaries, etc. that are from primary sources and these sources are cited.
Digitization makes identifying primary sources easier in several different ways. Academic and special libraries, most public libraries, and a growing number of school libraries have replaced their card catalogs with electronic catalogs. In a traditional card catalog, a researcher searches by author, title or subject (usually no more than two assigned per book) With an online or electronic catalog, a researcher can access a database of MARC records and can search by key word, date, Dewey decimal or Library of Congress number, illustrator, format, etc. Any word or number that is in the MARC record (MAchine Readable Cataloging) can be a point of access. Even an inexperienced user can achieve search results that are impressive and exciting.
Through Internet a researcher can use online catalogs from large public libraries, academic libraries, the Library of Congress, and other special libraries to identify primary sources. We are not very far away from a time when a generation of library users will never had had the experience of flipping though cards in a wooden card catalog. Note: use of electronic catalogs merely makes identifying and determining the location of sources easier; the research still must get to the "real stuff".
The Internet can also open up other pathways to primary sources. Online book- stores such as Amazon.com list books and other materials available for purchase (note: these materials are "in print"; "out-of-print" materials, often the most important kinds of sources for historical research, will not be included.) Searching online bookstores may reveal books that are reprints of original editions as well as materials printed to meet the interests of a new audience. For example, transcripts of the 1912 Senate hearing investigating the sinking of Titanic are now available in paperback with an introduction by James Cameron, director of Titanic , who describes how this material was a very helpful source for writing the movie screenplay). Also on Internet the researcher will find web sites ranging from those created by governmental departments to those sharing a personal interest or hobby. It is not unusual for authors of web pages to include a "link" to the primary source itself. Researchers may also find sites that sell artifacts or reproductions. Lucky researchers may even find eyewitnesses accessible through e-mail.