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History-Finding Primary Sources for Historical Research

A word to the wise.....

  • Some primary  sources  appear in book compilations.  If they are short excerpts from a longer text,  try to find the original.
  • Sourcebooks are another form of compilation of primary sources. Be a critical reader and think about why the sources were chosen.  Selections may indicate a bias.
  • Language: Remember primary sources will use the language and spelling of the time period.
  • Time periods:  References or "naming" of an event may change with time.  For example, it was only after the WWII, was the first global war referred to as the First World War.
  • Match your topic with that type of source where you would expect to find information. (For example if you were interested food customs in the 16th c England, you might want to search for recipes or cookbooks.

What is a Primary Source?

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 Original materials or records on a topic or event  that provide direct evidence or first-hand testimony. These records either by particpants or observers of events reflect a point of view at a particular time and allows the historian to study unfiltered evidence and critically develop an interpretation of the past

 Time: Can be sources created at the time of the event (e.g., letters and newspaper articles) or  after the event (e.g., memoirs, autobiographies or oral history interviews).

 Type:  May be published or unpublished.  Archives and manuscripts are unique, unpublished sources.

 Use: How the researcher uses the source generally determines whether it is a primary source or not.

What: Varies by discipline, but personal correspondence and diaries or papers  are considered to be primary sources by all disciplines.

   For the historian there are a wide range of sources for research. The list below are examples of some of those primary sources

  • First-hand Accounts: speeches, interviews; diaries, autobiographies
  • Accounts  first recorders of an event: Newspapers, Magazines, journal articles, books, and pamphlets written and published during a particular time period
  • Government documents are often a source of primary source material. They can include documents produced by a government agencies, treaties, census records, maps,  official  records (birth and marriage certificates), patents etc. 
  • Data such as census records or company financial records, real estate deeds.
  • Internal memorandum, email messages,  organizational records or legal documents of entities are used by historians as primary research material. 
  • Artifacts, objects such as pottery, architecture, 
  • Creative works produced at the time
  • Ephemera: brochures, pamphlets, postcards, programs, advertisements, etc.

   Distinguish primary sources from secondary and tertiary sources

Secondary sources are works that interpret the primary data. Examples would include a book examinging women leaders in the Civil Rights movement, or a journal article about the role of tobacco in Louisiana pre Civil War  economy, Tertiary sources, on the other hand, are even farther removed from the primary source. They are works that use secondary sources Encyclopedias are examples of tertiary sources.

 Find our more, What are Primary Sources?  Yale.

 First Steps: After doing some preliminary background information, think about what sources would serve your research need. 

  • What document sources would have have been created during this event? (Govenment documents, newspapers, diaries...etc). For example, if you choose a time period when newspapers were not a popular source of information, you would eliminate that format from consideration).
  •  What kind of information are you seeking?  Are you looking at laws and policy where public information would be an important source, or are you looking at the topic from the perspective of the participant?  In that case, you might want to search for diaries, correspondence, interviews, speeches, etc
  • In any event, there will be multiple participants and multiple perspectives. From which perspective, or lens do you want to direct your research?..



Primary vs Secondary Documents

The examples on this You Tube  video tutorial from the Hartness Librar  illustrates  the difference between primary and secondary  sources.  Note how the video demonstrates on how primary and secondary sources vary with the research topic.

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Mary Linden Sepulveda

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Mary Sepulveda

Coordinator of Collection Development

and Special Collections