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Finding Primary Sources for Historical Research

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.
 
*The first section of this guide was adapted from "Library Research Using Primary Sources." University of California, Berkeley. 
Starting Points

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.

 

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Kristin Andrews
 
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