Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to what happened during an historical event or time period and how it was perceived by the participants and observers. Primary sources are the evidence, the raw materials that historians use to make new observations and interpretations of an event, place, era, or other historical phenomena.
The following are generally considered primary sources:
Diaries, journals, speeches, interviews, letters, memos, manuscripts and other papers in which individuals describe events in which they were participants or observers.
Memoirs and autobiographies. These are generally less reliable since they are usually written long after events occurred and may be distorted by bias, dimming memory or the revised perspective that may come with hindsight. On the other hand, they are sometimes the only source for certain information.
Records of organizations and agencies of government. The minutes, reports, correspondence, etc. of an organization or agency serve as an ongoing record of the activity and thinking of that organization or agency. Many kinds of records (births, deaths, marriages; permits and licenses issued; census data; etc.) document conditions in the society.
Published materials (books, magazine and journal articles, newspaper articles) written at the time about a particular event. While these are sometimes accounts by participants, in most cases they are written by journalists or other observers. The important thing is to distinguish between material written at the time of an event as a kind of report, and material written much later, as historical analysis.
Photographs, audio recordings and moving pictures drawings, paintings, political cartoons or video recordings, documenting what happened.
Artifacts of all kinds: physical objects, buildings, furniture, tools, appliances and household items, clothing, toys.
If you are attempting to find evidence documenting the mentality or psychology of a time, or of a group (evidence of a worldview, a set of attitudes, or the popular understanding of an event or condition), the most obvious source is public opinion polls taken at the time. Since these are generally very limited in availability and in what they reveal, however, it is also possible to make use of ideas and images conveyed in the mass media, and even in literature, film, popular fiction, self-help literature, textbooks, etc. Again, the point is to use these sources, written or produced at the time, as evidence of how people were thinking.
Before you start your search, make a list of the terms, places, people and specific events about which you want to find primary resources. Keep this list handy and add to it as you learn more about the topic. Remember to keep in mind the language used during the time period you are researching, as those words will allow you to find materials that you might not otherwise locate using modern terms. For example, during the 1800's, an activist might have been called a "reformer", a word that we don't use much today.
Make another list of the kinds of primary sources you hope to find or think will be available for the topic. For instance, if you think newspapers are appropriate to your research, put them on the list, and consider which newspapers would be most useful. Randall Library's holdings of historical newspapers is limited, but you may wish to make a research trip to another library or request a microfilm copy of the newspaper through interlibrary loan.
Full-image online access for the NYT back to 1851.
The full text of this major London paper for 1785-2006. Every complete page of every issue is full-text searchable — every headline, article, editorial, announcement, image and advertisement.
Indexes the most popular general-interest periodicals published in the United States and reflects the history of 20th century America.This resource offers a wide range of researchers access to information about history, culture, science and seminal developments across nearly a century.
Coverage Dates: 1890-1982
Indexes some of the most important scholarly journals published in North America & Europe. Scholarly articles from the time period you are studying can give you insights into how people thought about issues and events of the time.
Coverage Dates: 1907-1984
Full text of letters and diaries. The collection includes bibliographies of women's diaries and letters yet published. It lists over 7,000 published and unpublished items from a variety of sources.
Coverage Dates: Colonial to 1950
"American Slavery: A Composite Autobiography" is a collection of the life histories of former slaves in the United States complied from nearly 4,000 interviews with ex-slaves. Coverage Dates: 1600 - 1900
ArchiveGrid is a collection of over two million archival material descriptions, providing access to detailed archival collection descriptions, making information available about historical documents, personal papers, family histories, and other archival materials. It also provides contact information for the institutions where the collections are kept. Archival collections held by thousands of libraries, museums, historical societies, and archives are represented in ArchiveGrid. Free Resource
Archives Unbound presents topically-focused digital collections of historical documents that support the research and study needs of scholars and students at the college and university level. Collections in Archives Unbound cover a broad range of topics from the Middle Ages forward-from Witchcraft to World War II to twentieth-century political history.
Provides over 1.6 million digital images in the arts, architecture, humanities, and sciences with an accessible suite of software tools for teaching and research. Includes valuable provenance and copyright information for citations. Register and log in (upper right corner of the screen) to access features such as saving images and creating image groups.
WorldCat helps you find books, web resources, and other material located
worldwide at OCLC member libraries (over 45,000 libraries.) Books in the catalog are generally available via Interlibrary Loan (unless they are considered rare), and many of the websites are freely available. The database also includes references to manuscript and archival material that would require a visit to the repository that owns it -- but at least you know where it is. See the search tips under Using the Library Catalog below.
Using the Library Catalog
For access to materials in Randall Library: includes sophisticated search capabilities like limiting by language and format or combining subject headings. Also allows users to send search results to their email addresses.
Case does not matter. Punctuation marks are not needed.
Keyword searches will likely retrieve something on your subject. This type of search looks in practically all parts of the catalog record, and is the only way to access the data in the Contents Notes field of records. However, if you are not using the terms catalogers use to identify a subject, keyword searches may actually retrieve fewer items than a subject search.
Subject searches use a controlled vocabulary, bring more consistency to searches, organizing records by subtopics. Library of Congress Subject Headings are used in both the local catalog and in WorldCat.
Primary Source Subheadings: There are several subject subheadings used to identify books or other resources that are compilations of primary source material. Look for:
early works. . .
songs and music
speeches, addresses, etc.*
*These subheadings are typically used under Subject Headings for individuals or terms describing groups of people, e.g., Soldiers.
Subject searches paired with the subheadings identified above with an asterisk (*) will also retrieve primary resources, e.g., Wilson Woodrow correspondence.
To determine other appropriate subject headings associated with your topic you can:
Enter your search as a Keyword. Look for an appropriate record, and link to the subject headings attached to that
Books & Library Materials
An excellent guide to finding and using primary sources in the web environment
A series of sourcebooks providing electronic access to documents in the public domain.
The Library of Congress digital contains text, photographs, audio and video on U.S. History. Be sure to try the American Leaders Speak: Recordings from World War I and the 1920 Election
Congress.gov is the official website for U.S. federal legislative information. The site provides access to accurate, timely, and complete legislative information for Members of Congress, legislative agencies, and the public. It is presented by the Library of Congress (LOC) using data from the Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives, the Office of the Secretary of the Senate, the Government Printing Office, Congressional Budget Office, and the LOC's Congressional Research Service
Contains law journals, Treaties & Agreements, Congressional documents, and other legal information. Use Full Text Advanced Search to see more options, including a custom date range search.
The Digital National Security Archive contains the most comprehensive set of declassified government documents available. Coverage Dates: 1945 - 2002; updated annually
USE BIBLIOGRAPHIES & FOOTNOTES IN SECONDARY SOURCES
Historical research is not a strictly linear process. You should make a research plan in the form of a list of tools to use, but as you delve into catalogs, indexes and other resources you may need to come back to those you thought you had exhausted. You may learn a new term to search or find a reference to a specific publication you did not know about earlier. Do not isolate your search for primary sources from your search for secondary ones, because the secondary sources also serve as a finding aid for more primary sources you didn't find through the catalogs or indexes.
Secondary sources may refer to sources (both primary and secondary) in these ways:
Classified: This is the easiest way to find new primary sources, because they are categorized as such. They may be further categorized as published (meaning they may be in the library collection or obtainable through interlibrary loan) or unpublished (meaning they are one of a kind and you must travel to the repository that owns them).
Alphabetical: You will need to sort the sources that seem to be primary (indicated by the title or publication date) from secondary resources.
Endnotes: Both primary and secondary sources cited in the order used by the author of the work in hand, compiled in a list at the end of the chapter or book.
Footnotes: Both primary and secondary sources cited in the order used at the bottom of the page where the usage occurred.
CONSIDER VISITING A MANUSCRIPT REPOSITORY
You may find records for manuscript material in WorldCat that is held by repositories nearby. These manuscript repositories also have online guides to finding aids.