Finding Primary Sources Online
Remember: When you're searching for specific people during a specific time period (say, the Great Depression), try putting their name in "quotes" ("Herbert Hoover") if you get too many results. Also, for people with long careers, always remember to add the specific time period ("great depression" or "New Deal", for instance) or any particular event you're searching for to their name.
All of the library's databases will have lots of primary sources for you to look at, but these two are probably the most comprehensive.
Search thousands of primary sources from the National Archives. This is probably the most comprehensive primary source collection you can get online. You can browse by source type, time period, and recommended sources. This is absolutely worth a look.
The American Memory from the Library of Congress
The American Memory is one of the largest collections of primary source material anywhere. The Library of Congress collects and archives millions of documents, photographs, letters, speeches, audio files, video files (though not for the Great Depression), and so much more. If you have an obscure person to look up, this is by far the best place to check out. They also have the most diverse collection of things. In fact, it's pretty interesting to look at even if weren't for an assignment.
Smithsonian Source Primary Sources
Search through the Smithsonian’s extensive collection of primary sources: artifacts, documents, and photographs. The collection can be broken down by topic, so you can see all of the photographs related to the Great Depression, and are searchable, so you can easily find a document George Washington signed.
American Heritage is a magazine about history – and it’s very comprehensive. They have more than 50 years of back issues available (for free!) online, and there is an enormous amount of information available in them. The articles are written for regular people, not history professors, so everything is easy to understand and doesn’t require a lot of background knowledge. Best of all, this goes far beyond timelines and biographies; it’s real critical thought about history.
Like American Heritage, but better! HistoryNet is a collection of many history magazines, whose archives you search. There are entire magazines dedicated to the Great Depression, and there is a lot of research in those magazines that will be helpful to you.
HERB: Social History for Every Classroom
HERB is a search engine from CUNY’s history department that let’s you browse primary sources by time period or theme. It focuses on social history, so how real people lived and how the events of history affected them.
Throughout the Ages: A Visual Document Resource
This website is from New York State, so all of the resources are going to be New York-centric. It’s also a visual document resource, which means that this is mostly photographs, artwork, and things like that.
The National Archives Experience: Digital Vault
This is the coolest looking primary source website out there. It’s very easy to use, and it’s great for browsing by a broad subject area (search for Civil War rather than Battle of Antietam). It’s definitely hit or miss - some searches won’t turn up any documents at all - but the great interface makes this worth a look.
Calisphere: 1929-1939: The Great Depression
Calisphere is a program from the University of California libraries. Their primary source project collects pictures, letters, and other primary source documents from different historical periods. Their section on the Great Depression is mostly pictures, but they’re broken down by topic in an easy-to-understand way and really worth a look.
New Deal Network
This is going to be one of the best resources for you to use. It’s chock full of all different kinds of primary sources, and all from the Great Depression/New Deal era. You can search by the name of the person you’re looking for, by the type of source (picture, letter, artifact, etc.), or you can just browse. Even if your specific person isn’t mentioned here, you can still get a good idea of what the time period was like by browsing through.
Discovering Women’s History
This collection of primary sources connected to women’s history is incredibly comprehensive. Each decade contains hundreds of different primary sources: documents, artifacts, photographs, letters, etc. You can search by time period or by using a specific search term. Obviously, this site will only be useful for people researching women.
American Rhetoric: Online Speech Bank
This will only be applicable if your person has made notable speeches, obviously. The speeches are arranged by speechmaker, so you can easily search and see what’s there for a specific person. Each speech page includes the text of the speech, background information about the speech, and, in some cases, audio.
Studs Terkel: Conversations with America
Studs Terkel is a prominent oral historian, which means that he has basically been interviewing people about historical events for several decades now. This website contains audio files of the vast majority of Terkel’s interviews, which you can search through. He tends to interview non-famous people, so you might not have any luck searching for your specific person, but you can search for things like "dustbowl" or "farms" or "new deal" or just "depression" (